Why did the New York Times tell the world--a year in advance--it is planning to start charging for online news in early 2011? Won't that give competitors time to react? Yes, and that is precisely what some believe the paper is hoping for.
Here's the idea: That by announcing so far head of actually implementing a paid subscription model, the Times may be sending a signal to the rest of the struggling newspaper industry that it is time to get on board.
Times management may be hoping other major newspapers will follow suit, perhaps placing most, if not all "quality journalism" behind pay walls.
Might Google News, currently the most influential news aggregator, ultimately be replaced by a partially paid site, run by the news organizations themselves?
Or might news sites affiliate with one another, so that customers could subscribe to one and get content from all?
"That's something news organizations have been looking into," said Ken Doctor, research analyst at Outsell, Inc., a Burlingame, CA-based company that offers advisory and analysis services to publishers.
Doctor said newspapers might band together to reach the critical mass necessary to turn online news into an at least partially paid service.
News magnate Rupert Murdoch has already threatened to take his News Corp. papers off Google and start charging for online access to them. Murdoch's Wall Street Journal is one of only a handful of newspapers successfully charging readers for content.
Another success story is the Financial Times, whose site offers limited monthly access to free content and provides the rest only to paid subscribers.
The New York Times said Tuesday that it intends to follow the FT model, hoping to retain free readers to generate advertising revenue, while using paid content to generate both subscriber income and premium advertising sales.
Registered FT readers can view 10 full-text articles every 30 days. Paid subscriptions are $3.59-a-week, or $5.75 for a "premium" subscription.
The Times described its plan this way:
"Most readers who go to the Times site, as with other news sites, are incidental visitors, arriving no more than once in a while through searches and links, and many of them would be unaffected by the new system," the paper wrote.
"A much smaller number of committed readers account for the bulk of the site visits and page views, and the essential question is how many of them will pay to continue that habit."
The essential answer? Hardly any, at least when virtually all Internet content is free.
"Newspapers that see paid online content as a panacea are in for a rude awakening," the researcher found. Its findings are based on a survey of nearly 3,000 news consumers.
"Only 10 percent of news users are willing to pay for a print newspaper subscription to gain online access. Seventy-five percent say they'd turn to a different source for local online news if their newspapers required a paid subscription," the study also found.
The report also documented evidence of Google News' corrosive effect on newspaper readership.
"Among the aggregators, Google's effect on the newspaper industry is particularly striking," said Outsell's Doctor.
"Though Google is driving some traffic to newspapers, it's also taking a significant share away. A full 44 percent of visitors to Google News scan headlines without accessing newspapers' individual sites."
Aggregators are also increasing their share of news consumers, the study found.
"For 'news right now,' 57 percent of news users now go to digital sources, up from 33 percent a few years ago," Doctor said. "They're also likelier to turn to an aggregator (31 percent) than a newspaper site (8 percent) or other site (18 percent)."
One hope for newspapers is that they work together to deny their coverage to anyone not willing to pay for at least a portion of it, including Google.
If all major U.S. newspapers and wire services started charging, readers might get the hint that paying 1,100 professional journalists, as the Times does, is an expensive proposition and be willing to ante up.
The New York Times' bid to turn frequent readers into paying readers may be the last best hope for American journalism. It's a long shot, but with essentially all newspapers in trouble, there may be safety--and success--in numbers.
I'd pay to read the New York Times online. But, I'd rather buy a subscription to all of America's best newspapers--one price for them all. Am I alone in being willing to pay for quality news, while also supporting the important role a free press plays in preserving democracy?
We may find out in early 2011.