Paidcontent.org have an extensive interview with Martin Nisenholtz, Senior Vice President for Digital Operations at the New York Times: part 1 and part 2.
Jay Rosen has deconstructed the decision and added some extra comments from Nisenholtz.
It's this that has been driving recent online acquisitions by old media companies:
"Being caught unprepared for the surge in online spending is part of what's behind the About.com deal the New York Times struck, the purchase of Marketwatch.com by Dow Jones, publishers of the Wall Street Journal, and the acquisition of Slate by the Washington Post Company. In each case, a national newspaper company realized it would be leaving ad money on the table if it didn't act."By comparison, in Australia PBL bought seek.com in 2003.
John Battelle breaks it down nicely:
"The Times saw About as an opportunity to get into the search game, certainly - lord knows news is not a very profitable business when it comes to paid search. But there's more. About provides the Times a platform to explore microcontent without having to - necessarily - extend the Times' brand to everything. And as I've told anyone who will listen to me, I think microcontent is key to winning in the Web 2.0 publishing world. When publishing folks from mainstream newspapers tell me that blogging is far too small to possibly impact their businesses, I often ask this question: Would you rather have scores of microsites with a combined revenue of $15 million, profits of $3-5 million, and a double digit growth rate, or a newspaper group with revenues of $50 million, profits of $5 million, but declining growth?
The Times actually has a profitable and growing newspaper group, and it's much bigger than an average publisher, but my point is this: the opportunity in publishing is clearly moving down the tail, and if you want to win, you need to play down the tail as well. About.com allows the Times to do just that. About is based on Six Apart's MT, for one, so if they want to extend the Times own brand into blogging, they're already halfway there."
About.com will let the NYT run both a locked and a free model of web publishing. It's quite foreseeable that the main newspaper web site would move towards a locked or subscriber model while About.com would remain free.
Forbes takes a different angle:
"The fact that the About.com deal comes on the heels of these other deals is a red herring ...
The Times, The Post and Dow Jones each stand to gain a nice chunk of the fast-growing Internet advertising pie that is expected to increase from $6.6 billion 2003 to $16.1 billion in 2009. However, the New York Times is cutting its slice with a different knife from that of Dow Jones or The Washington Post.
The latter two both bought Web sites that look a lot like offline news outfits. MarketWatch and Slate are assembled in much the same way as old media are, with journalists reporting and writing stories under the direction of editors. The content at About.com is created far less expensively by people who are passionate about a particular subject, which is what makes the site blog-like.
Because blogs--and About.com's topics--are so specialized, they foster the establishment of a community of like-minded readers. Community is what keeps users on a Web site longer and gets them to return more often. People who feel part of an online community are inspired to participate themselves, posting their own contributions."
As far as NYT's long term digital strategy goes, there's a nice timeline here.