NY Times to Launch Online Paywall on March 28

Company rolls out highly anticipated digital subscriptions today in Canada “to fine-tune service” ahead of global launch

Finally.

The New York Times announced on Thursday that it will launch its highly anticipated digital subscription plan and vaunted online paywall on March 28.

The company is launching the service in Canada Thursday “in order to fine-tune the customer experience prior to the global launch.”

The Times first announced plans for the so-called "metered model" on Jan. 20, 2010, and has been building and testing the product for over a year.

The idea is to charge "heavy users" of the Times website and mobile applications, while allowing those who sample the Times online to continue doing so for free. "When the monthly reading limit is reached," the paper said, "users who are not already home delivery subscribers will be asked to become digital subscribers."

That monthly limit for all users is 20 articles ("including slideshows, videos and other forms of content"). Beyond 20, users will be asked to become digital subscribers. The Times estimates that about 15 percent of its monthly audience — roughly 30 million visitors — views more than 20 articles per month.

All home-delivery subscribers ("7-day, Monday-Friday, Weekender, Sunday only, etc.") will get access to the Times website free.

The homepage of NYTimes.com and all section fronts "will remain free to browse for all users at all times." Also importantly, those who are directed to Times articles online "through links from search, blogs and social media will be able to access those individual articles, even if they have reached their reading limit."

"Today marks a significant transition for the New York Times as we introduce digital subscriptions," Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote in a letter to readers. "It’s an important step that we hope you will see as an investment in The Times, one that will strengthen our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers around the world and on any platform."

The pricing options for digital subscriptions are as follows:

>> Unlimited access, including all devices, costs $8.75 per week or $35 a month.

>> Access to NYTimes.com, including tablets and smartphones, costs $5 a week, or $20 a month.

>> Access to NYTimes.com, including smartphones, costs $3.75 per week, or $15 a month.

As it stands, the Times website gets about 30 million unique visitors a month, according to Comscore, and more than $100 million in advertising revenue annually.

“A few years ago it was almost an article of faith that people would not pay for the content they accessed via the Web,” Sulzberger Jr. told employees on Thursday morning. “This move is an investment in our future. It will allow us to develop new sources of revenue."

Just how much revenue is unclear. Times executives aren't making any predictions, but Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, wrote in a post on Business Insider that the Times stands to generate $100 million a year on digital subscriptions.

Sulzberger added: “The challenge now is to put a price on our work without walling ourselves off from the global network, to make sure we continue to engage with the widest possible audience."

And the Times is already promoting its digital subscription options to that global network. On Thursday, the company bought a "promoted" trend on Twitter, with the hashtag "#NYTimesNews."

Here's the full release from the Times:

The New York Times announced today that it is launching digital subscriptions, which will affect some users of its award-winning Web site, NYTimes.com, and its applications for smartphone and tablet. The subscription plan allows for free access to a set amount of content across digital platforms. When the monthly reading limit is reached, users who are not already home delivery subscribers will be asked to become digital subscribers.

Digital subscriptions will be available in the United States and globally on March 28, 2011. The Times is launching digital subscriptions in the Canadian market beginning today in order to fine-tune the customer experience prior to the global launch.

For non-home delivery subscribers, the basic package — NYTimes.com plus Smartphone App — will start at $15 every four weeks. The NYTimes.com plus Smartphone App package is currently available for purchase by users in Canada. On March 28, the global launch, The Times will offer three digital subscription packages, all of which include access to the Web site. Details are outlined below.

In making today’s announcement, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., chairman of The New York Times Company and publisher of The New York Times, said, “Today marks a significant transition for The Times, an important day in our 159-year history of evolution and reinvention. Our decision to begin charging for digital access will result in another source of revenue, strengthening our ability to continue to invest in the journalism and digital innovation on which our readers have come to depend. This move will enhance The Times’s position as a source of trustworthy news, information and high-quality opinion for many years to come.”

Janet L. Robinson, president and chief executive officer of The New York Times Company, added, “As the market for and delivery of digital content evolves, we believe that supplementing advertising revenue with digital subscription revenue makes tremendous sense. The step we are taking today will further improve our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers across the world on any platform, while maintaining the large and growing audience that supports our robust advertising business.”

Details about the digital subscription:

* All users of NYTimes.com are able to enjoy 20 articles at no charge each month (including slideshows, videos and other forms of content). Beyond 20 articles and for open access to the site, users will be asked to become digital subscribers.

* On The Times’s smartphone and tablet applications, the Top News section will remain free. To delve deeper into the apps’ other sections, users will be asked to become digital subscribers.

* The Times is offering three digital subscription packages that allow users to choose the devices on which they want to access Times content. NYTimes.com will be included as part of any subscription. Details and pricing for these plans is available at http://www.nytimes.com/access. Introductory offers will be available.

All New York Times home delivery newspaper subscribers receive free, unlimited access to NYTimes.com and the full content on all of The Times’s applications. Home delivery subscribers can go to http://homedelivery.nytimes.com to sign up for free access.

* Readers who come to Times articles through links from search, blogs and social media will be able to access those individual articles, even if they have reached their reading limit. For some search engines, users will have a daily limit of free links to Times articles.

* The homepage at NYTimes.com and all section fronts will remain free to browse for all users at all times.

In keeping with Apple’s new subscription service terms, The Times will make 1-click purchase available in the App Store by June 30 to ensure that readers can continue to access Times apps on Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) devices.

Subscribers to the print edition of the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of The New York Times, will receive free, unlimited access* to NYTimes.com.

For more details about The Times’s digital subscriptions, go to http://www.nytimes.com/access, or see the FAQ’s: http://www.nytimes.com/digitalfaq.

* Mobile apps are not supported on all devices. Does not include e-reader editions, Premium Crosswords or The New York Times Crosswords apps. Other restrictions apply.