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Barnes & Noble Nook Now Free -- Sort Of

Does the eReader yearn to be free? For some time now, pundits have predicted a select group of eReaders and tablets would soon become loss-leader specials: tech gadgets provided at little or no up-front cost to consumers, who in turn must purchase a digital media subscription of some sort.

Well, that glorious day has arrived. Barnes & Noble is offering its Nook Simple Touch eReader, which normally sells for $99, for free.

The catch: You must buy a one-year Nook (digital) subscription to The New York Times at $20 a month. Alternatively, you can get a Nook Color for $99 -- a hundred bucks off retail -- with a one-year Times subscription.

Since the regular price of the Nook newspaper edition of The New York Times is $20 per month, you really are getting a free Nook out of the deal. You'll have to ponder, however, whether the Nook edition is worth $240 per year, particularly when NYT articles are readily available online for free.

The B&N bundle costs less than The Times' All Digital Access pass, which provides unlimited access to NYTimes.com from most mobile devices, including BlackBerry, iPhone, Windows Phone 7, and Android smartphones, for $424 per year.

The Digital Access deal includes access to the NYTimes apps for the Apple iPad and the Chrome Web Store, as well as to Times Reader 2.0.

Would you buy an annual subscription to a newspaper or magazine for a "free" tablet? The publishing industry is hoping (OK, praying with fingers crossed) that you'll say "yes." Print is struggling, and the nation's news publishers desperately need to find a new business model before it's too late.

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