Is the NYT meter really a navigation fee?

By Felix Salmon
January 22, 2010
says he's "uncommitted" in terms of passing judgment on the NYT metering plan, but the broad outlines of his take seem clear: insofar as it's a metering plan as that term is commonly understood, it's not a good idea. But it isn't, and we still don't really understand what it is, so it's still too early to judge.

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Jay Rosen says he’s “uncommitted” in terms of passing judgment on the NYT metering plan, but the broad outlines of his take seem clear: insofar as it’s a metering plan as that term is commonly understood, it’s not a good idea. But it isn’t, and we still don’t really understand what it is, so it’s still too early to judge.

Jay explains most of this in his latest post, where he talks about a pledge from NYT CEO Janet Robinson and digital chief Martin Nisenholtz 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.”

Jay is right that insofar as we can take this at face value, it massively changes the whole concept of what a metered paywall is, to the point of inventing a whole new approach. Certainly, if this is true, I’ll happily continue to link to the NYT just as I’m doing right now, since all my readers will be able to follow my link, no matter how many times they’ve accessed nytimes.com that month, and no matter whether or not they’re subscribers. In fact, this is exactly what I said the NYT should do in constructing a metered system.

But will the NYT follow through on this pledge? It seems to me that they’re simply asking everybody to use external aggregators as a replacement for the nytimes.com homepage as the best tool for reading the site. Even people using the NYT’s own RSS feeds to find the stories they want to read might well be able to consume an unlimited amount of online content for free.

Or to put it another way: if this is true, then they’re 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. If you get to that second page any other way — by following a link in your RSS reader or your favorite blog or a news aggregator of some description — then you need no subscription at all.

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.

What’s more, a scheme along these lines ends up hurting the NYT’s blogs most of all. The way that the NYT’s blogs are formatted, to read them you need to navigate separately from post to post — exactly the kind of behavior which will get charged under the new system. Reading a long magazine article costs nothing, if you get there from an external link; reading Paul Krugman’s blog, by contrast, will use up a lot of your monthly allotment, if you want to catch up on his most recent posts.

So while this policy is great for external blogs, like mine, it’s atrocious for internal blogs. Is that really something the NYT wants? I don’t think so — and as a result I suspect we might see some backtracking on this front between now and implementation.

Update: Josh Young makes a good point when he says there’s another way of looking at this paywall: it’s essentially a charge for being ignorant of any doors to NYT content beyond the nytimes.com homepage. Which dovetails with my thesis that the real target here is print subscribers, who tend to be less web-savvy.

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