It sounds like the NY Times is planning on charging for online content. Right now they ask you to register, but the content is free. Rumors are that they will let you read a few articles for free before asking you to subscribe.
Maybe this will work, but I think it ignores the way the web is fundamentally different than a newspaper. When I subscribe to a newspaper, I’ll probably read a good portion of it. When I’m reading news on the web, I will read the articles I find interesting from a variety of different sites. Subscribing to a newspaper that gives you 75% of your news probably makes sense. Subscribing to a newspaper where you get 5% of your news is a harder sell.
For a subscription model to work well, I think you’d either need something like micro-payments or a subscription to a group of online resources. Micro-payments are problematic because they are confusing and because Americans seem to prefer unlimited or package options. Subscriptions that give you access to a bunch of different web sites might work, but it would require publishers to work together.
Imagine a subscription where you can pay $20 per month and get access to the 20 top papers in the US, plus some sites like Britannica, etc. Your subscription could be divided up between the publishers based on the number of articles, page views or time spent on each site. As the number of subscribers grew, more publishers would want to be part of it to get some of the income pie. As the number of publishers grew, more individuals would be interested in subscribing.
The company who seems uniquely positioned to pull something like this off is Google. They could easily show subscribers results that they have access to, while showing non-subscribers what they are missing. Since Google controls a good percentage of the traffic for many of these sites, they would be a good company to handle the subscription process. More importantly, if these companies simply start restricting access to their content, Google will probably stop showing their content in the search results.