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Accept readers ponder how much they'll pay

With the Times' announcement that frequent readers will have to start paying for access in 2011, the question becomes, "How much would you pay?"

So, what we all knew was coming has now finally been announced, and no, I'm not talking about a tablet from Apple.

I'm talking about the New York Times and the paper of record's announcement Wednesday that it has decided to begin implementing some form of fee for frequent online readers next year.

As my colleague Larry Dignan over at ZDNet wrote earlier today, users will be able to read a small number of articles for free each month, but will have to pony up if they exceed that cap.

The Times, itself, puts it this way, "The new approach, referred to as the metered model, will offer users free access to a set number of articles per month and then charge users once they exceed that number. This will enable to create a second revenue stream and preserve its robust advertising business. It will also provide the necessary flexibility to keep an appropriate ratio between free and paid content and stay connected to a search-driven Web."

For anyone who's been following the dwindling fortunes of the Times over the last few years, this decision shouldn't come as a big surprise. The paper has built one of the largest and most impressive online operations in the business, yet hasn't been able to make it work financially. We've been told, in fact, that the Times is losing money by the truck load, and that the future of its print edition is by no means guaranteed.

So, it seemed inevitable that the Times would resort to, once again, charging for some form of access to its content. It has tried that before, but eventually decided to go all free. The problem now, of course, is that readers who have gotten used to free access may reject having to pay. It's all about expectations. The Wall Street Journal has famously not had too much trouble charging for its content online, but only because it began doing so from the get-go.

However, as my colleague Rafe Needleman wrote recently, being asked to pay for the same content twice is not likely to engender much pleasure on the part of the Journal's readers. As he reported, the paper decided to charge even subscribers for access to its content via an iPhone app. Needleman rejected this notion, properly, given that he already pays for a Journal subscription. Charge me once, fine. Charge me twice, shame on you.

Back to the Times, however, it seemed like the Bill Kellers and Arthur Sulzbergers of the world probably didn't have a lot of choice in changing their model. They needed to do something, though it's been clear that even inside their shiny new headquarters at Times Square in Manhattan, there was little agreement on what course to chart.

And so, finally, they settled on this metered model. Fine.

The truth is, in spite of my general desire not to pay for online news, I would probably be willing to fork over a few dollars each month for unlimited access to, and I suspect many others will, too.

Certainly not everyone will, and there's no doubt that the site will lose a great deal of its 20 million-plus unique users when the charges take effect next year. But a lot of people will decide it's worth it to pay something in order to keep on reading as much as they want on the site, especially if they know that their dollars are supporting the actual journalism they're reading.

The counter-argument, on the other hand, is that by implementing charges, the Times will kill itself, and we'll all lose. That would be a tragedy, and one that, when we're honest with ourselves, has a not-so-insignificant chance of coming true.

But let's say the metered model is the way to go. The question is, how much will people be willing to pay? It's clear from the Times' announcement that even internally, they have no real idea what the answer is. Officially, all they're saying is that more details will be available soon, but that sounds like press release-speak for "We have no clue."

For me, access is important. I check the site daily, usually multiple times. In addition to a small number of other sites, it is an essential part of my daily reading. And for that, I'd be willing to pay $5 a month, easily. I suppose I'd also be willing to hand over $10 a month, though I'd not be as happy about it. More than that, and I'd have to reconsider whether it was worth it.

What's most important is that the Times gets it right. Executives alluded to fluidity in their pricing model, and that, "they could not yet answer fundamental questions about the plan, like how much it would cost or what the limit would be on free reading. They stressed that the amount of free access could change with time, in response to economic conditions and reader demand."

This is worrisome. As a consumer, what you want is some sort of certainty. Sure, prices change over time, but do you really want to buy a product when you're not even sure how much of it you're going to get for your money next week?

So, here's hoping that the Times' executives do a great job of crunching their numbers and figure out precisely what the right model is.

In the meantime, my question to you is: How much would you pay for this?