New York Times (NYSE:NYT) announced today that it will begin to charge for some premium online content, such as op-ed columns from its pundits, starting in September. Given the difficulties facing the industry -- and the data that was released a week or so ago disclosing some rather disturbing circulation figures -- this hybrid approach seems an interesting experiment.

Op-ed columns by certain popular Times writers will be available only to people who subscribe to a product called TimesSelect, with a price tag of $49.95 per year. It also contains a few tools and features that some folks may not mind paying for, such as podcasts, video content, sneak peeks at articles, and organizational tools for Times content -- and last but certainly not least, the company's archives, which are currently available only on a fee basis.

Last quarter's earnings over at the Times may not have been very inspiring, although one interesting tidbit from March was that the online version of the newspaper had had an unprecedented number of page views, according to this story about the Associated Press' new pricier news.

And so it's not too surprising that the Times would seek out ways to squeeze more revenues out of its popular Web presence. It of course brings to mind Dow Jones' (NYSE:DJ) Wall Street Journal, one of the few success stories when it comes to newspapers that have tried to charge fees for entry to their online gates. However, the Times may do well with this TimesSelect product -- and at the very least, this model shouldn't hurt its current robust traffic by limiting too much content available for free.

After all, it still plans to provide news, features, and multimedia on its site free of charge, and this combination of paid and free content could do well. Free content on the Web often acts as a kind of funnel through which some visitors realize that their needs are best met by an upgrade to a fee-based premium service with more bells and whistles. (And in this case, bells and whistles may simply add up to opinion and historical content.)

At any rate, given some of the elements that face newspapers at the moment, it should be interesting to watch how the companies that back them offset such problems as drop-offs in ad spending, decreases in paid circulation, and so forth. For now, the Times is offering up a compromise in its mix of paid and free content -- and such a mixed message served up to its online visitors could very well be fruitful.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.