Instead, the plan to offer access to a few articles free, but charge a fee for more extensive access appears to have three other goals. First, stem the loss of print readers who have shifted to the free web site, second, prepare for distribution over mobile devices such as Apple's new Tablet computer, and third, gather the kind of detailed information about readers that can make the paper more competitive in advertising markets.
The article hints at some of this saying:
Company executives said the changes would wait another year primarily because they need to build pay-system software that works seamlessly with NYTimes.com and the print subscriber database.
Why print readers still matter
Subscriptions are nothing to sneeze at, but U.S. print newspapers have for decades depended on advertising to generate more than 75 percent of their total revenue. Especially telling, industry statistics show the average price of subscriptions has not increased after adjusting for inflation.
So it's not realistic to expect any general interest newspaper will generate significant amounts of reader revenue in the far more competitive market for news online.
The Times will not charge print subscribers for access to the web site. This suggests the paper has recognized that loyal print readers will move to the web if they can get free access there.
And print subscribers are still far more valuable than web readers. The advertising revenue per subscriber in print is almost certainly much higher than ad revenue per reader on the web, so the Times needs to stem this loss.
Betting on mobile distribution
As for distribution on mobile devices, the Times is probably hoping consumers find electronic readers preferable to the smaller screens on mobile phones, and will therefore pay a bit to have the newspaper delivered in a superior format.
The companies that make these devices, Apple, Amazon, and others, are probably hoping semi-exclusive access to the Times will attract buyers for their devices. Of course, if this works those same companies will be able to extract a hefty fee from the Times for the privilege of appearing on their device.
The real goal of the Times is probably access to user information collected by Apple, Amazon, et al. An example is information about a user's location that comes with access to wireless networks that readers use to download newspapers and books. I will be surprised if Apple's device does not include GPS to improve the quality of tracking data (Yes, I know consumers also use GPS and might turn it on and off).
Knowing someone's reading habits and where they go to read is, of course, the kind of information advertisers crave because it can be used to make a precisely targeted pitch for a product.
Gathering reader information on the web
The Times will also be using its website to gather equally detailed data about its most loyal readers, those willing to pay for access. Just imagine the advertising-friendly statistics that might generated when information from print, the web site, and mobile distribution is combined.