Time Magazine Dons An Online Condom

Time Magazine Cover July 7 2010

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Time.com didn’t go behind a paywall this week and there aren’t plans for that to happen. Technically, Time magazine didn’t put one up for its online content either — that is, you can’t pay to read the contents of current issues of Time (NYSE: TWX) online. What the Time Inc. flagship did was slip on the magazine equivalent of a condom, a barrier between online readers and the full content of the magazine.

Instead of full stories, online readers get an “abridged” version with a warning that the full text is available only via print and iPad editions. The result is, well, unsatisfying on every level.

Readers can’t pay by the story or buy a daypass or any of those options folks like Steve Brill and Gordon Crovitz dangle as possible moneymakers. No way to get full access as a print subscriber, even with an added fee. Without a digital subscription offering, that means the only way to read the full magazine electronically is pay $4.99 a week for the single-copy iPad edition. (Unfortunately, you can still get the full text of Joel Stein’s astonishingly tone-deaf piece on Edison, NJ as Little India.) They can, however, buy the cover

The abridged concept make me think of that condensed version of Gone With the Wind that left out two of Scarlett’s children or those Readers Digest editions that gave people bragging rights about reading a book without actually getting through the whole thing. Granted, it’s better than stories that stop in mid-air after a few sentences but just barely. As someone who was once involved in Time‘s painstaking editorial process with numerous weekends interrupted by discussions over the right wording, it’s hard to imagine articles being deconstructed for online promotion instead of reading.

One of the oddities of the abridged stories are the way they’re used to pitch web exclusives that are meant to flesh out the magazine story. In most cases, that will mean you can see the extras but not the story they are designed to supplement.

On the business side, for now the decision limits digital pay access to a very select group. yes, Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) has sold an astonishing three million-plus iPads in an incredibly short time. I don’t have current specifics on where Time app downloads fit in but I find it hard to imagine more than a very small percent buy the weekly digital editions. Abridging is easier than a full paywall technologically so less expensive but selling Time covers offering people to buy the cover without a way to buy the cover story makes little sense. (That’s if you accept the idea that any of it makes sense at this point.)

Not a surprise: This isn’t a bolt from the blue or a sudden shift in strategy. As Time Inc. spokeswoman Dawn Bridge explains: “We

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