It’s a good one, given that making a mid-January announcement of a 2011 business move is highly unusual in any trade. And a year in Internet time is something like 11 in real life.
So why did the Times do it?
We could say that it’s a fast-track, comparing it to the health plan’s 2014 (?) implementation, but that wouldn’t be fair, would it?
So let me offer a mix-and-match of three likely reasons for the announcement:
- It’s a Signal to the Wider News Industry: Recall how nervous U.S. daily publishers were when NAA sponsored “paid content” get-togethers in mid-2009. Everything was out in the public, with vendors uncomfortably presenting panel-style. The word whispered: "anti-trust." So publishers can hardly convene a meeting in midtown to plan a next-decade paid content world.
In fact, the Times’ move follows the many Rupert Murdoch statements of 2009, saying News Corp (NASDAQ:NWS) publications, most not in the US, would be finding some way to charge readers. In addition, Hearst is busy working on pay wall plans, Skiff-enabled and otherwise, while numerous companies are working with Journalism Online, strategizing how to launch their own metered and/or niche content plans.
So the Times sends a signal to others: we’re going paid, too. If many publishers follow the paid path, that’s good for the Times – less threat of free content competition for readers.
- It’ll Take Time to Lay the Foundation and Infrastructure for the Moves: It has taken the Financial Times several years to develop the sophisticated analytics and tracking technologies to optimize its metered system. While in consideration by the Times for awhile, it will take the company time to get the technology rolling.
Further, the Times made it clear that it wants paying subscribers to enjoy a seamless experience across digital products, products that will soon include desktop/laptop access, smartphones and tablets. That’s easily said, but requires all kinds of technology integrations and customer relationship coordination and service. In this scenario, the Times wants to make sure to get the new program right.
- It Gives the Times Time to Change Its Mind or Tweak the Plan: Let’s say it’s the best plan the Times can come up with today, in early 2010. Let’s also say we – and the Times – have no idea what 2010 has in store. Will tablets revolutionize digital news reading and provide powerful new ad streams? Will Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) decide it’s in its best long-term interest to share revenue with news providers who supply it the free raw fuel to feed its ad engine? Will Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and/or Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) decide to pay the Times a hefty sum to include its content in their new digital products, as they pay TV/video content providers?
Let’s say some things just come completely out of the blue. The Times can plan its new metering system, adjust accordingly and see how the uncertain, post-recovery digital landscape plays out.
So there are three possibilities. We can mix and match them, giving us something to speculate on until Apple’s Second Coming announcement in a week.