The devil in the NYT meter’s details

By Felix Salmon
January 21, 2010

One issue which I’m sure has yet to be settled inside NYT headquarters is the status of blogs vis-a-vis the nytimes.com paywall. On the one hand, blogs are a central part of the website’s value proposition — exactly the sort of extra digital content that they want people to pay for. On the other hand, blogs simply don’t lend themselves to paywalls in general, or to metering in particular. While newspaper articles are self-contained entities — visit once, get the information, you’re done — blogs are conversations. As a result, participating in any one conversation — reading any one blog — will in and of itself use up whatever pageview quota the NYT might be willing to give you.

Even if the blogs stay outside the paywall, the NYT might find it hard to communicate that effectively — and in any case, as Ezra Klein says, non-NYT blogs are sure to be the big winners from this move. Many of the NYT’s star blog properties, including Paul Krugman and Freakonomics, are likely to leave nytimes.com — or at the very least mirror their NYT postings elsewhere — if they wake up one morning to find themselves within a firewall.

This is just one of the many bits of fine-tuning which are going to use up an enormous amount of developers’ and managers’ time. Will the NYT still break up long stories into multiple pages? If so, how will it ensure that it’s counting stories read rather than pages visited? And how will it communicate that to its readers? Will they be able to see their own personal meter as it ticks up towards the paywall level? What about slideshows — how many meter-points will they rack up? And what about things like the Times Skimmer, which is one page with hundreds of different articles on it?

In general, many of the most innovative and interesting things which the NYT has done in the multimedia/website space have been experiments which break the old-fashioned equation of one newspaper article = one web page = one pageview. But the meter system seems designed to keep that hoary old convention clattering on into the indefinite future. It’s a problem the NYT is bringing on itself, for precious little upside. It’s going to be a serious distraction, and that’s something no one in the NYT needs right now.

Update: The NYT says that “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”. That’s good news for bloggers linking to nytimes.com — but I suspect it’s going to be non-trivial to implement.

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