New York Times digital subscriptions & the impossible fight against free content

On March 28, the New York Times will put a new "freemium" subscription model in place for users accessing news on NYTimes.com. Every month, 20 articles are free, and all further articles are locked unless the user pays a subscription charge: $15 every four weeks for the website and a mobile app, $20 for Web access and an iPad-specific app, or $35 for all access.

In a letter to readers, New York Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said, "It's an important step that we hope you will see as an investment in The Times, one that will strengthen our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers around the world and on any platform. The change will primarily affect those who are heavy consumers of the content on our Web site and on mobile applications."

It's a veritable repeat of the Times' 2005 introduction of TimesSelect, a Web-based subscription plan that cost $7.95 per month or $49.95 per year. That program ran for two years and was cancelled with about 227,000 subscribers.

At the time of its cancellation, erstwhile head of NYTimes.com, and recently unseated chief of NPR Vivian Schiller said, "We believe offering unfettered access to New York Times reporting and analysis best serves the interest of our readers, our brand and the long-term vitality of our journalism…We encourage everyone to read our news and opinion -- as well as share it, link to it and comment on it."

On Twitter on Thursday, New York Times Tech columnist David Pogue said the response to the new subscription charge was "overwhelmingly negative," and most responders simply said the plans were just too expensive.

Of course, any charge will seem too expensive when the New York Times is competing with online news outlets who publish high quality content paid for by the advertising dollar. It's an observation we heard entertainment lawyer Fred E. Goldring make about the music industry back in 2008, as long as two products are of comparable quality, you simply can't compete with the one being offered for free.

The Huffington Post, one of the most famous examples of not-for-pay news and journalism, is now the subject of a Newspaper Guild boycott. The 26,000 member labor union on Wednesday called for all unpaid writers of the Huffington Post to "withhold their work in support of a strike launched by Visual Arts Source in response to the company's practice of using unpaid labor."

Calling The Huffington Post "unprofessional" and "unethical" for not compensating its writers, the Guild said its requests to meet with the publication in the wake of its $315 million merger with AOL have been ignored.

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