The New York Times has announced that it will begin charging the most frequent readers of its Web site for access in early 2011, but, for now, the Gray Lady hasn't revealed the specifics of its pay system.
What we do know is that you'll be allowed a certain number of free stories every month, after which you'll have to pay a yet-unknown flat fee for unlimited access. That means that occasional readers may never hit the pay wall. Still, charging for content can be risky business.
The dilemma for the New York Times is that it gets 17 million readers per month, according to Nielsen Online, and analysts say it's the clear leader among newspapers for online advertising revenue. I'm not sure how many pages those 17 million readers are looking at, but the Times won't want to limit those views so much that advertising will take a dive. At the same time, it needs to squeeze some readers for cash to make up for lost print subscriptions.
With that in mind, there are two possible approaches: one is to offer just a few free articles a month -- enough to provide a tiny taste before demanding a subscription. A second option is to set the bar so high that people who stumble upon the site from news aggregators or links from other Web sites won't ever know the pay wall is there. My vote's for the latter option.
Let's say the New York Times offers 20 free articles per month. If you're not a regular Times reader, that would allow you to visit the site once every weekday. But anyone who makes the Web site part of their daily routine would hit that pay wall after a week or so. Those are the people the Times should be targeting for payment.
Like any plan, a generous New York Times pay wall could backfire. I don't doubt that the Times will lose page views and readers no matter what paid approach it takes. But if the Gray Lady is convinced that a paid model is the way to go, so be it. Someone besides Rupert Murdoch should take the plunge, if only so we can see whether pay walls are a silly idea.