New York Times launches digital subscriptions: Pros, cons and hurdles

Summary:The New York Times launched its long-awaited digital subscription plan and access for all platforms---smartphones, tablets and Web---can be pricey at $35 a month, but the model may just work out.

The New York Times on Thursday launched its long-awaited digital subscription plan and access for all platforms---smartphones, tablets and Web---can be pricey at $35 a month, but the model may just work out.

This digital subscription plan aims to thread a lot of needles. For starters, the Times doesn't want to nuke its Web traffic. As a result, everyone gets 20 pieces of content before a subscription is needed.

Once you hit that cap things can get complicated in a hurry (statement, Times' letter to readers):

  • For Web access and the smartphone app it's $15 every 4 weeks, or $195 a year.
  • For Web access and a tablet app, it's $20 every 4 weeks, or $260 a year.
  • For access to all digital content---tablet, smartphone and Web---it's $35 every 4 weeks, or $455 a year.
  • And the Times is supporting in-app purchase on Apple's App Store.

As I noted in my Kindle Single on the business of media, 2011 is going to be an interesting year for digital subscriptions. One of my biggest beefs is that publishers are charging per distribution channel. The Wall Street Journal is the worst offender here. You get charged for a tablet app, Kindle access and Web access. I argued for a content license across all platforms.

The good news is that the Times takes care of that problem---almost. E-reader access is still a separate subscription. Access to mostly all digital content (Web and apps) is $35 a month. The big question is whether you think there's value in Times content on all of those platforms. To borrow a phrase from the Neiman Journalism Lab: Do the newsonomics add up for you?

For instance, I don't mind paying for NYTimes.com access, but the app access seems overkill. As browsers improve on tablets and smartphones it's far easier to just go to the site.

Mozilla's Firefox browser on Android really drives this point home for me. You get a full Web experience and my passwords and bookmarks are synched with what I have on my desktop. In other words, I barely miss the app. For many folks, the solution is going to be NYTimes.com on a browser no matter what the device is used.

The other big question is whether people will simply stop consuming content at the 20 story cap. That outcome is a real possibility for many.

When you weigh the pros and cons though the Times subscription model seems fair. Here's a quick scorecard:

Pros of the Times model:

  • There's still free access.
  • There's a plan to cover multiple platforms.
  • Price points seem reasonable.

Cons:

  • It's unclear how much revenue will come. Do you really read more than 20 Times items a month?
  • Times doesn't lump in e-reader access.
  • The all access plan at $35 a month is pricey.

We'll know in July how this adventure turns out. The second quarter reporting season will be the first full quarter when there will be real metrics to judge the subscription plan.

Topics: Tablets, Browser, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Smartphones

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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