NYT Tests Online Pay Scenarios On Print Subscribers; Decision By August?

Updated After much internal discussion and tons of outside advice, the New York Times is now asking a constituency that really counts how much it would pay for online content: print subscribers. In a survey that started out Thursday, the NYT offers multiple scenarios, including one at $5 a month for all content and a discounted version one at $2.50 a month for print subscribers.

New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT) spokeswoman Catherine Mathis explained by e-mail: “The purpose of the survey is really to reach out to our home-delivery subscribers and understand how they would react to a pay model for the website. We are evaluating a variety of scenarios where access to our content, in varying amounts, would require a fee.” When I asked if there was any scenario that would block off all content, Mathis replied: “No, this research isn’t testing that scenario.”

For context, following the latest price hike, the list price for print subscription outside the New York metro area is $14.80 a week, or roughly $770 a year, compared with $60 a year for that $5 balloon being floated. (There’s usually a short-term, half-price intro rate running; at an NYC street fair last month, a salesman tried to convince me to cancel our full-price subscription and sign up for that offer.) In addition to the print edition, subscribers have access to other subscription products including premium crosswords ($40 annually); Times Reader ( $180 annually for the full version); Times Digest; NYT Archives (some are avilable to print subs only); and the Electronic Edition ($175). As a print subscriber, I would suggest online be included in that list — unless what they looking for are volunteers to switch to online-only subscriptions at a much lower rate than what we’re currently paying. That would be the ultimate switch of print dollars for digital tuppence.

But one problem the Times has is those of us who are willing to pay for print are the ones most likely to cough it up for online — and we’re the ones they can least afford to lose. Yes, there are the occasional comments from people who say they are willing to pay if the paper opts for an online fee. And, yes, a nice number of people signed up to pay for TimesSelect, the short-lived experimental service that drew so much ire from a lot of the same folks who will complain about anything the Times charges for but generated about $10 million.

Mathis talked about another issue with Poynter’s Bill Mitchell, who has a detailed report on the survey: “The one thing I advise people on this is that we’ve got a very large [online] revenue stream. … We looked at 30 different companies — Weight Watchers, ESPN (NYSE: DIS), Consumer Reports — to see how much money is being generated from Web sites. What we saw is that we’re doing a pretty good job monetizing content with advertising.” The newspaper sites accounted for roughly two-thirds of the company’s 2008 digital revenue of $352 million.

As we reported last week, the Wall Street Journal, which has more than 1 million paying subscribers, is surveying iPhone app users about how to charge for a now-free product. News Corp (NYSE: NWS). Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch told Fox Business Network from Sun Valley: “We have a lot of plans I