The New York Times *finally* announced that it will start charging for "frequent" access to its articles starting in 2011. This is no surprise — with advertising and subscriptions on the decline, it's a long time in coming.
The Times Company hasn't yet announced the details of its deal, other than it plans to allow readers to access a certain number of articles for free, before charging a fee for unlimited access. And of course subscribers to the print edition get free range online. This is similar to the Financial Times model, and of course the Wall Street Journal has a successful subscription system.
The publisher still has a lot of decisions to make about exactly how the subscription business will be structured and how it'll roll out a new model. The newspaper has a lot to lose — it's got more ad revenue than any other US newspaper site. It also has a lot to gain — NYTimes.com is the most popular newspaper site in the US, with more than 17 million uniques a month. But with ad revenues continuing to slide and the ongoing shift away from old-fashioned print, the polisher can't wait any longer.
So what's the hold up?
What's taken the publisher so long?
The Times says it has been "studying" the issue for a year and now it'll take a whole additional year to get the payment system up and running? This isn't the paper's first time charging online — from 2005 to 2007 Time Select charged $49.95, attracting 210,000 subscribers. You'd think with experience in this arena and such detailed data on online readers it wouldn't take a full year to enact this plan?
The Times is likely making this decision under pressure from Carlos Slim, an investor in the publisher, who has said on CNBC that he is a firm believer in monetizing online content. This move is also a validation of Rupert Murdoch's assertion that content creators must protect and charge for their content online. Bottom line — in this digital age, advertising revenue isn't enough to support the paper's expensive newsroom and foreign bureaus.
The publisher is taking its time because it doesn't want to screw up its second attempt at a pay model. But this caution and drawn-out process is exactly what needs to change about the publishing industry. Online advertising and behavior changes fast — to think that two years ago few people knew what Twitter was. Perhaps the paper would be wise to rush the rollout of a new system, with the option of tweaking it once it's in the works.
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