The long-awaited New York Times digital subscriptions paywall has been revealed and, at first glance, it seems to be exactly how Apple would like it to be. Print purists will be pleased it's more expensive than the paper edition.
Apple and the Times have had a pretty close history since the launch of the iPad, and the NYT's app even appeared prominently in early Apple promos for the tablet. But the Times has long been planning to erect a paywall around its digital content--a move which is seen as important in the industry because it could act as a litmus test of how well traditional newsprint publications can transition their business model onto tablet PCs. Now the details have been revealed.
Prime among the various pieces of information the Times has given us with its paywall launch is one fact: Subscriptions for the paper will happen on iOS devices through the iTunes App Store Subsriptions ecosystem, meaning the Times is prepared to sacrifice 30 cents on the dollar to Apple for each subscription, and to lose access to rich subscriber demographic data that it would have if it organized its own subscriptions. It all but had to take this step, given Apple's recent policy machinations, but it's the first big-scale publisher to accede to Apple's business model, which lends the App Subscriptions business a very prominent feather in its cap.
The price is interesting: It's $15 for a four-week period for full access to the NYTimes.com website and access through a device like an iPhone. iPad users will have to pay more: $20 for a month for the enhanced content accessible through the iPad app. And for a full cross-platform access, users will have to pay $35 per month.
But there's a couple of clever catches: Firstly, non-subscribers can use the mobile apps, but have an access limit of 20 articles per month--once this is reached, they'll be prompted to pay for a subscription (although you can still read linked stories within Facebook, Twitter or via a website like this one). This mechanism will preserve interest in the Times among users not keen to pay for online news, and keep the Times' stories linkable for online cross-referencing (and, presumably, SEO). The company does say that "for some search engines, users will have a daily limit of free links to Times articles"--meaning you can't just use Google as an always-open back door to Times content. Then there's a move to keep print subscriptions central to the Times' business: A dead-trees subscription, with delivery, is still cheaper than the all-access digital edition at around $23 in New York, and all print subscribers get free access to the cross-platform digital service.
Those with an eco-minded view of the world will despair at this (thinking of the raw materials and energy wasted in printing and distributing all those newspapers which may act as physical "loss leaders" for the digital edition), and e-publishing supporters will probably be dismayed that the Times hasn't really focussed on digital 100%. But we'll have to wait to draw the real conclusions about this model: Sometime after the paywall is erected on March 28th, the Times will probably announce how many subscribers it's managed to win--and this will be a true measure of how successful paywall systems like this for digital newsprint will be.
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