Does the new Kindle DX spell the end of free newspaper web sites?

Why would gadget-obsessed news junkies pay to read The New York Times on the new Amazon (AMZN) Kindle DX when they can read it for free on their iPhones? Unless, of course, today's announcement that The New York Times Co. (NYT) and The Washington Post Co. (WPO) will underwrite the cost of the new, bigger e-reader for anyone who pays to download their papers on the device is an early sign that their free websites' days are numbered.

As cool as the new Kindle is, it's not a tablet PC. It's not even as powerful, and certainly not as connected, as the typical smartphone. Imagine reading a Washington Post story on Pakistan on your iPhone while waiting for the bus. When you're done, you can search Google for blogs written by people who live there or e-mail a friend who has visited the region. With the Kindle, you can . . . read the newspaper. Put that way, it's hard to see who wouldn't pick the iPhone.

Whether newspapers' free websites are helping or hurting their long-term prospects is a matter of great debate in the industry these days. The partnership with Amazon will let publishers stick to their papers' subscription-and-advertising revenue model, minus the cost of actually printing and distributing newspapers. But if it becomes the centerpiece of their strategy to survive the revolutionary change in how people communicate, share information and get their news, they may be disappointed.

Right now, newspaper publishers are signaling that a Kindle subscription is their premium product. After all, you can read everything in the Times and the Post for free online. But compare the Kindle's black-and-white screen and inferior connectivity to the vibrant colors, ease of accessing the internet and smaller size of the iPhone. Which experience seems more "premium" to you? It's the one that's currently free, which is why it may not stay that way for long.

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