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When disclosure rules permit, I'm going to buy a small stake in New York Times (NYSE: NYT ) .
It's a potentially crazy bet. So why make it? Digital content won't be free forever, and few organizations create and distribute more valuable content than New York Times' various publications.
We're already seeing the shift. Dow Jones was charging for the digital edition of The Wall Street Journal long before News Corp. (NYSE: NWS ) took over. The Financial Times also charges for access to its website, and the U.K.'s Guardian is now experimenting with a similar idea. The New York Times appears to be next.
According to The New York Observer, the Times this summer will unveil a plan to earn more from its digital content. The two options: a pay-per-read metering system, or a donations-based approach similar to the one used by National Public Radio.
Neither would be easy. Newspapers are suffering from poor reputations and declining revenues. Many are closing. Those that remain are hurting badly enough to prompt some states to consider de facto bailouts via huge tax breaks.
The good news: Systems to support one-off and subscription sales are emerging. Amazon.com's (Nasdaq: AMZN ) Kindle is the most obvious, but there's also talk of Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) creating a Mac tablet that could offer its own e-reader. Or it could simply copy the iPhone, which already supports Times Reader, software that allows The New York Times' digital edition to read like the inkier print version.
Times Reader is a potential source of advantage for New York Times, because it's a different take on digital availability, something that you won't find from Washington Post (NYSE: WPO ) or McClatchy (NYSE: MNI ) .
But Times Reader is only a portion of this digital story. More importantly, New York Times' papers thrive in the peer-reviewed world of social networking. "Peer reviewed" in this case refers not to scientific scrutiny, but to reader evaluation. NYT's content gets vetted as it is read and submitted for others to endorse via Twitter, Digg, StumbleUpon, Delicious, and so on.
Two stories from the latest editions of the Times populate Digg's home page as I write this. No other magazine, newspaper, or blog had more than one. I expect this will continue to be true when New York Times gets more aggressive about charging for content, so long as it's charging for its own unique content -- editorials from Times writers, or reviews of local Manhattan eateries, for example.
But I could be wrong, especially since the Times has already failed once at charging for digital content. I'm betting real money that this time, the paper (and its parent company) gets its right. If I'm wrong, I'll pay in more than public ridicule.
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