How the NYT should construct its paywall

By Felix Salmon
January 18, 2010
Gabriel Sherman says that the NYT is going to be putting up an FT-style paywall:

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Gabriel Sherman says that the NYT is going to be putting up an FT-style paywall:

After a year of sometimes fraught debate inside the paper, the choice for some time has been between a Wall Street Journal-type pay wall and the metered system adopted by the Financial Times, in which readers can sample a certain number of free articles before being asked to subscribe. The Times seems to have settled on the metered system.

Let’s hope that if and when this happens, the NYT implements a good metered system, rather than the bad system adopted by the FT. The NYT arguably has the best news website in the world right now, and any kind of paywall implementation is going to result in a deterioration of the experience of using it. But if the NYT is smart about this, it can try its hardest to be be as unobtrusive and user-friendly as possible.

The first and most important principle that the NYT must bear in mind is that any smart metering system will work more like a taxicab than like the dreadful FT approach: the key thing is that a meter measures how much of the service you’ve consumed, and then you pay for that much — and no more. At the FT, by contrast, the meter slams down a hard paywall after you’ve reached n pageviews in a given month, and then charges you a very large sum for the n+1th pageview. That’s stupid, because no single pageview is worth that much to a reader.

The NYT system should instead simply measure how much you used the site last month, and then bill you; my guess is that Apple, when it releases its new tablet later this month, will also unveil a system which makes it very easy to link your nytimes.com account to your iTunes account so that your NYT bill will simply get added on to your iTunes bill along with your apps and TV shows and music and ringtones. The NYT itself won’t even need to collect your credit-card information. Once you reach a certain maximum billing level for the year, the NYT and Apple will just stop billing you.

And what of people who can’t or won’t pay? The NYT is an invaluable source of information for many people around the world who don’t have credit cards or iTunes accounts. I think that in the first instance most countries outside the US (and maybe also Canada) should be exempt from having to pay anything. There will always be ways of getting around any paywall, so the NYT shouldn’t worry too much about loopholes; its first priority should be retaining as much of the user experience for as many of its readers as possible, given that it has come to the conclusion that a paywall of some description is necessary.

In fact, I don’t think that the NYT should ever bar content entirely from people who can’t or won’t pay. If you refuse to be billed for usage, then the NYT can maybe massively increase the number of interstitials you get served, or otherwise allow the kind of intrusive advertising that normally it shuns. (Click to make this survey go away!) The Sulzbergers are rightly serious about preserving the NYT as a public trust — and it’s in their self-interest to do so. Nowadays, that public trust is best served through the website, and its accessibility to hundreds of millions of information-hungry people around the world. Cutting them off from the website just for the sake of dealing with a nasty cashflow problem is not smart business. As I said about the FT last year, high-profile newspapers should value long-term brand value, and the ability to stay relevant to future generations of potential readers, at least as much as short-term subscription revenues.

I trust too that NYT digital chief Martin Nisenholtz will do his best to encourage bloggers to keep on linking to nytimes.com, just as he came to an agreement with Dave Winer, before he freed up the NYT’s archives, to create a way of linking to stories whereby the links would continue to work even after the story should have disappeared behind the archive wall. One easy and obvious policy would simply be to say that the first story you see after following a link to nytimes.com from some other site is always free. If purpose-built websites started popping up which existed only to allow people to get around the paywall very easily, the NYT could always exempt those sites from the policy.

More generally, the NYT should build the easiest and most user-friendly metering system they can construct, without worrying too much about whether and how their readers are going to be able to game the system. One of the many problems with the FT’s system, in particular, is that it’s overly paranoid, to the point at which it regularly blocks paid subscribers from the site. But the fact is that there will always be people trying to game the system — and they will always be in the minority. If and when that minority becomes very large, the NYT can revisit its paywall design. But in the first instance, it shouldn’t worry too much about them. It’s the same idea as spam filters and comment moderation on blogs: they should be implemented only after comment spam becomes a problem, not before.

For the NYT has bigger things to worry about than readers gaming its paywall. (Remember that it doesn’t worry about people stealing copies of its physical newspaper — and those extra copies cost real money to print and distribute.) Up until now, the NYT has been in a very small group of news sources, along with Reuters, the BBC, and the Guardian, which people know that they can link to, safe in the knowledge that their link is going to work forever: anybody clicking on the link will get the story. A badly-designed paywall will oust the NYT from that select group — which would be great for Reuters, but very very bad indeed for the NYT. Let’s hope that if and when this paywall arrives, it’s designed with all the intelligence and conscientiousness that we currently see informing the paper’s site design.

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