New York Times rolls out paywall for mobile apps

The New York Times has begun rolling out changes to its website and mobile apps in advance of its digital subscription plan, which launched Monday afternoon.

Unlike the metered Web paywall, which provides 20 free articles per month and allows linking from search and social media, content on the mobile apps is more tightly controlled.

A house ad at the bottom of the Times’ iPhone app takes readers to the paper’s March 18 letter explaining the changes:

“On our smartphone and tablet apps, the Top News section will remain free of charge. For access to all other sections within the apps, we will ask you to become a digital subscriber.”

On NYTimes.com, several FAQs concerning the paper’s stable of mobile apps have been updated to reflect the new subscription requirement. (Times subscriptions on the Kindle, Nook and Sony Reader e-readers are covered by separate subscriptions.)

Top News, videos and most emailed stories are still available to non-subscribers on the Times’ iPad and iPhone apps. Blogs, however, are available only on the iPhone. On the iPad, individual blogs are located within their related subscription-protected sections.

Both platforms provide a brief glimpse of protected articles, with a prominent notice inviting readers to subscribe to the paper for unlimited access.

The Times is offering an introductory rate of 99 cents for four weeks of digital access for the Web, smartphone and tablet apps. When I tested the subscription process on my iPad, I was given instant access to each of these platforms.

The sign-up process itself, while not onerous, is a bit tedious. It requires users to enter a credit card number, security code and billing address via the touch screen keyboard; it’s not as quick as Apple’s one-click subscription process.

It’s convenient, then, that the Times is implementing subscriptions for its mobile apps before Apple’s June 30 deadline for publishers to offer in-app subscriptions via iTunes. So the Times has three months to sign up subscribers via its own e-commerce system before it must offer Apple’s payment system — and give up 30 percent of the revenue.

The Times strategy has been in the works for 14 months, so the timing may be coincidental, but it does give the paper a head start on acquiring customers outside of Apple’s eventual involvement in the process.

Disclosure: In May I will start a job at The Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times Co., as a product manager for mobile. I haven’t had any access to discussions regarding the paywall.

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