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The Times's delayed, leaky paywall

January 22, 2010

Jay Rosen points to another interesting, if not altogether surprising, tidbit about how the New York Times plans to construct its promised paywall. Essentially, it appears that if you come to a Times article via a link, either on the Web or in an email, you will get to read the whole article, and the article won't count against your monthly limit of articles. This news comes from a Q&A in which Times CEO Janet Robinson and digital chief Martin Nisenholtz answered readers' questions about the subscription plan. Here's what they said:

Q: ... will I still be able to send the e-mail link to others who may or may not be NYTimes subscribers so that they can open the link and read the article?

A: ... yes, you can still send links to your friends.

Q: What about posting articles to Facebook and other social media? Would friends without a subscription then not be able to view an article that I think is relevant for them?

A: Yes, they could continue to view articles. If you are coming to NYTimes.com from another Web site and it brings you to our site to view an article, you will have access to that article and it will not count toward your allotment of free ones.

The Wall Street Journal has been doing something similar with Google News; if you come to the Journal site from a Google News link, you get to read the whole article, even if it's blocked for other nonsubscribers. The Times model would seem to expand this loophole enormously, basically giving news surfers ("freeloaders" in my market segmentation scheme) unlimited access to the Times's online content. Or, as Rosen puts it, "for those people who get their news from the web itself, using search, aggregators[,] social media and blogs to find the stuff they want, the stuff they find from the New York Times will always be available, free of charge."

The Times's paywall is not only a delayed paywall, falling after some number of articles have been read; it's a delayed, leaky paywall. This makes it all the clearer that the Times plan is a versioning strategy, through which, as I described yesterday, Times readers will segment themselves according to the value they ascribe to the Times and their willingness to pay. Freeloaders will continue to get more or less unfettered access to Times stories for free, while Times Loyalists, who value the Times as an information source and want to spend significant time browsing its site (or using other digital delivery mechanisms), will be asked to pay a modest subscription fee.

Inveterate news surfers will scratch their heads at this plan. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? In fact, a commenter on Rosen's post raises this point: "This is super weird ... It's an interesting (if nothing else) way to structure a paid system, but it won't take long before people realize they can just browse the @NYTimes Twitter stream, as opposed to NYTimes.com's home page." (In another comment, the normally astute Scott Rosenberg also professes dismay at the Times plan, saying it "makes zero sense.") But that view is a fallacy. It assumes that everyone wants to bop around on the web all day trolling different sources for stories. It also assumes everyone is a scheming hacker who, to avoid having to fork out a few bucks, will click links in the Times twitter feed or otherwise figure out some geeky way to get around the system. But not everyone's like that. In fact, most people aren't like that. Some people just want to go to a few trusted outlets for most of their news - sources rather than links define their news-gathering behavior - and some subset of that group will likely be willing to pay something for the convenience of having free run of a trusted site. (The iTunes store has revealed that a substantial set of people will happily pay money for digital music files that they could fairly easily scrounge up for free elsewhere on the web.)

The Times subscription plan may fail. It may be built on a misreading of the marketplace. But it's not super weird, and it's not cockeyed. It's a reasonable, thoughtful plan, and the company may discover that a delayed, leaky paywall is the kind of paywall that pays.

UPDATE: Reuters' Felix Salmon writes: "if this is true, then [the Times is] not actually charging for NYT content; they’re charging for NYT navigation. What you get charged for isn’t reading NYT stories, but rather navigating from one NYT page to another. Now, the navigation at nytimes.com is excellent, and I can see that some people might be willing to pay for it. But it’s a pretty weird thing to charge for." I think navigation is part of what you're paying for, but I think the more salient sources of value will be convenience (of which navigation is one element), access to various modes of digital delivery beyond the web site, and, most important, the Times's editorial skill and judgement as a producer and aggregator of the day's news and commentary. (To find all of the Times's content through external links might be possible, but it would be a royal pain in the neck.) What the Times is hoping, obviously, is that a large enough set of people will perceive that value as something worth paying for.

Comments

"Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? ... But that view is a fallacy. It assumes that everyone wants to bop around on the web all day trolling different sources for stories. ... But not everyone's like that. In fact, most people aren't like that."

That's exactly right. When professional and scholarly journals first became available in digital form, publishers worried about their valuable article PDFs (some are sold for up to $100 each) being shared via email. Those fears were unfounded--readers are willing to pay for value and convenience.

Disclosure: The company that I work for, Atypon, develops and supports the application that the Financial Times uses to power FT.com’s paywall and digital commerce. New York Times Digital is also a customer.

Posted by: Kevin Cohn [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2010 07:57 PM

I also suspect that somewhere along coming up with this idea, Apple's new slate device played a role in cementing the confidence to go ahead with this plan.
The folks who will pay for access to the new york times site fall in the same category as those who read books in the kindle and any other digital book reader.

Posted by: Asg749d [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2010 02:01 PM

So, that means I could build a shadow NYTimes web site and get free access to every story for my readers... Brilliant. I can't wait for the paywall.

I've got another solution though: http://bit.ly/5BNF3n

Posted by: Tom Foremski [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2010 04:39 PM

So, that means I could build a shadow NYTimes web site and get free access to every story for my readers...

You could do that, Tom - though you might want to check with a good copyright lawyer first - but I'm not sure it would be particularly enticing to the people the Times sees as potential subscribers to its digital editions.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2010 05:42 PM

Sounds like the whole thing will be really easy to bypass with a simple firefox extension

Posted by: Brad Murray [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2010 05:21 PM

This is exactly what I'm hoping the Times will implement, and I consider myself to be part of that weird pool of NYT diehards that would pay for some extra value. I'm hoping they can reward people who are willing to pay AND web nerds by providing syncing and info management across web, mobile, and other platforms (something you hinted at in regards to digital delivery).

Posted by: TRMW [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 26, 2010 04:17 PM

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