Times Unplugs Its Internet Charges

As a former journalism teacher, it pains me to note that Ye Olde Fish Wrapper, as we've known it, is giving up ground faster than one of my University of Tennessee defensive backs. And nowhere is that phenomenon more noticeable than at New York Times' (NYSE: NYT  ) lead newspaper.

Earlier this week, amid plummeting advertising revenue for its traditional printed publication, the company's management threw in the towel on charging for TimesSelect, its two-year-old online product. TimesSelect had been started after major hand-wringing at the company over whether to charge readers for the Internet product. It was finally decided that the online publication would be provided to its subscribers for $50 a year. TimeSelect apparently had about 227,000 paying subscribers, all of whom will receive refunds covering the remaining portions of the subscriptions.

And so, with ad contributions for its newspapers sliding month after month -- August's numbers were down 4.6% from the prior year -- there was an obvious need for a change at the company. Since Internet ad revenue had increased by 28.2% during the month, there appeared to be a logical approach to the dilemma.

NYTimes.com will count American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) , which will ante up for the newly opened areas of the online paper, as its first sponsor. In return, the company will receive a primo advertising position on the website's home page, along with spots in its Opinion and Archive sections.

This leaves Dow Jones' (NYSE: DJ  ) Wall Street Journal as one of the few remaining newspapers to charge for its online version. Indeed, one of the many questions concerning the company's acquisition by News Corp. (NYSE: NWS  ) is whether Rupert Murdoch will see fit to continue to extract $79 yearly from each subscriber to WSJ.com.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether traditional newspapers will be able to compete effectively with the news products of such Internet-born companies as Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) . My take, from having endeavored just a few years ago to cajole university students into reading anything that wasn't plugged in, is that newspapers' brand loyalty may be even slimmer for younger readers than is typically assumed.

In any event, I'd urge my Foolish friends to observe the Times' experiment by checking out the newly free NYTimes.com. But please don't underwrite the project by plunking down your hard-earned shekels for the company's shares.

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