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By all appearances, the question isn't whether the New York Times will revisit paid subscriptions. The question is what those subscriptions will look like.

Last week, Gawker published documents purporting to detail two possible online subscription packages the newspaper company is mulling over, New York Times Silver and Gold.

Both would give subscribers "opportunities to engage with [New York Times] journalism in a richer and deeper way than [they] ever have before". The Gold package would even include access to exclusive members-only 'TimesEvents'. The prospective cost of the Silver package: $50/year; Gold: $150/year.

If the Times were to launch both plans as detailed, the newspaper's approach would appear to leave much of its currently-free content outside of the pay wall. New services would be placed behind the pay wall.

Such an approach could help the Times avoid an especially tricky challenge: how to get users to pay for something that was previously free. At the same time, however, it could leave the Times with an even tougher sales pitch as it would have to convince users that the new services are compelling enough value-wise.

Already, there is some skepticism. In a post on the blog of Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab, Martin Langeveld comments:

Silver and Gold sound like packages dreamed up by Times execs who were thinking, “how can we add a couple of layers to the free content we’re putting on the site, and make it look like something some people might pay for?”

And what they came up with was something that resembles how memberships are generally packaged at cultural non-profits like the museums, opera companies and symphony orchestras of New York City, which those Times are undoubtedly members of.

But, he notes, the Times is "a business with customers", not a museum. His suggestion: go niche.

If the Times asked their customers about that, they’d find that frequent traveler might be willing to buy premium travel content; a film buff might pay for deeper movie content; an avid gardener might pay for specialized horticultural material. The Times should think about a suite of TimesChannels: TimesTravel, Times Tech, TimesGourmet, TimesDesign, TimesGarden, TimesArt, TimesFilm, TimesWeather, TimesPuzzles, TimesBooks, TimesPolitics, TimesFinance, TimesWhatever, each with much deeper content than the free website has, each priced at $50 a year, and each potentially capable of attracting an audience as large as TimesSilver or TimesGold might get.

It's an interesting concept. But one that has its own problems.

First, it's not quite clear to me that the New York Times goes deep enough into any one category to create viable niche plays. Unlike say, the Wall Street Journal, which established its value as one of the best finance and business-focused dailies, the New York Times takes a broader approach. Travel? Tech? Art? Film? There are already niche publications (both online and offline) serving these areas in greater depth than the Times. So why would anyone pay for the Times' individual coverage of them?

Second, price could easily become a problem. If you like travel, food and art, for instance, being forced to pay for access on a niche-by-niche basis could easily be a real turn-off.

Finally, I think the Times needs to keep it simple. The initial Silver and Gold packages that have been floated may need refinement but such an approach is K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) friendly. Creating separate subscription packages around niches could, in my opinion, create too many options so as to result in confusion and hesitation amongst prospective subscribers.

So what's the answer? If it was obvious, there wouldn't be so much discussion and debate.

I'm sure of one thing though: the New York Times had better make a decisive move; it can't half-ass it. The period during which newspapers could have their cake and eat it too has passed. If the Times thinks users need to pay for its content, it can't pussyfoot around and try to get too clever. It had better find a way to cover its core content in a subscription service and let the chips fall where they may.

Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 28 July, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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