The pricing on the New York Times recently announced digital subscription packages has a lot people scratching their heads.

From The New York Times itself:

Beginning March 28, visitors to will be able to read 20 articles a month without paying, a limit that company executives said was intended to draw in subscription revenue from the most loyal readers while not driving away the casual visitors who make up the vast majority of the site’s traffic.

Once readers click on their 21st article, they will have the option of buying one of three digital news packages — $15 every four weeks for access to the Web site and a mobile phone app (or $195 for a full year), $20 for Web access and an iPad app ($260 a year) or $35 for an all-access plan ($455 a year). All subscribers who take home delivery of the paper will have free and unlimited access across all Times digital platforms except, for now, e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook. Subscribers to The International Herald Tribune, which is The Times’s global edition, will also have free digital access.

Don’t miss that last key point: Subscribers who take home delivery (of any kind), get free and unlimited access to all digital content. That means you can take the cheapest subscription available for the paper edition ($161.20/year) and get digital content that the Times says is worth $455/year for free. Even if you throw the paper edition away or put it on permanent “vacation” mode, you can pay significantly less than half the price of a digital-only subscription.

I’m not defending the pricing. Far from it, I think it’s a disaster. I do understand it, though, and it has nothing to do with trying to promote digital subscriptions. Rather, it’s a result of a traditional publishing mindset. The Times sees no value in digital subscriptions. They are ephemeral, non-substantive. Only paper is real; only paper subscriptions “really count.” There may be a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is the impact on advertising rates for the paper edition. But I think there’s an old-school bias at work here, too. The Times doesn’t really want to sell digital subscriptions — they want people to buy the paper.

I knew a barber who charged outlandish prices for a shave. I asked him why — did he give amazing shaves? No, the answer was that he hated giving shaves. By pricing them so high, he discouraged most of his customers for asking for them, and the few who did were paying high enough prices to make it worth his while.

The Times, I think, hates digital subscriptions. They’d rather give them away if you buy the paper than sell them on their own. And their pricing structure is designed to drive people to do just that.