By the Time the Sulzbergers are Running a Daily Deals Operation…

An anonymous swipe between investors earned chuckles in a story my Reuters colleagues recently did on Facebook and its coveted secondary market shares. “By the time T. Rowe Price is investing, you know it’s too late,” one wiseguy cracked, suggesting the firm isn’t savvy enough to buy into a good trend early.

I couldn’t help but think the same thing reading that The New York Times will, in a yet-well-calculated move, launch a daily deals service to connect its affluent readers with its high-end advertisers.

I don’t mean this as a knock on the Times, although the media organization has been a little off the pace of some Web trends in the past. News of the Times’ e-commerce play really reflects how overcrowded the daily deals space is getting, and it is only going to become more congested. The Times’ daily deals platform will likely result in advertisers clamoring for premier space before the paper’s online readership. Their readers and advertisers will no doubt help create an additional revenue line for the paper, which, ultimately, will benefit the paper.

But when Gilt Groupe is raising $138 million, Groupon just locked down about a billion, and Living Social reels in more than a half-billion dollars over two rounds in six months before the Times even decides to belly up to the table, one can’t help but apply the same school of thought to the daily deals business that the anonymous investor applied to the clamoring pack of buyers demanding Facebook shares. Just like a secondary market Facebook share sale, consumers’ e-mail addresses are in danger of becoming “significantly oversubscribed” to daily deals notifications. So how much is too much?

The Times certainly won’t be the last media entity to come up with this business model. There is nothing to keep the FT or the Journal, or, heck, even us at peHUB.com from replicating a daily deals business model (How’s deals on steakhouses, Vegas flights and bail bondsmen, to start, gang?). Companies like the Times would benefit from requiring exclusivity to their daily deals e-mail from their vast and valuable base of advertisers. If they—or any daily deals site—can enhance visibility among consumers through deal content that is unavailable to other e-marketers, that is increasingly likely to get consumers’ attention when it arrives in their inboxes.

There are plenty of e-mail subscriber lists that can be merged with targeted marketing of everything from airfare to pub fare, but that doesn’t mean that a growing number of time-sensitive daily deals flowing into inboxes won’t ultimately be ignored as part of a broader din of spam. Americans, and everyone else, only have so much of an attention span.

This, in turn, brings into question the value of some of these daily deals sites—not the rationale behind the Old Gray Lady’s online marketing move. Pinch made a smart call when he tried to lasso his paper’s boldface retailers and tether them to the Times’ reader base. But if everyone can tap into Groupon’s business model, did the company’s most recent billion-dollar round, like, overvalue it by just a bit?