The NYT toughens up its paywall

December 7, 2010
my advice when it comes to how to build a paywall.

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Martin Niesenholtz, the head of digital at the NYT, clearly hasn’t been taking my advice when it comes to how to build a paywall. Instead, he’s pre-emptively cracking down on a tiny and financially meaningless minority of hypothetical readers who might want to find ways around his wall:

“We will take great pains to make sure that the first-click-free policy isn’t abused in any way,” said Martin Nisenholtz, the Times’ digital chief. “Google has been quite cooperative in terms of setting a limit for the number of free articles that can go in for any one day, so that you can’t just sit and engineer your way into a free use of the website.”

What this says to me is that the NYT is spending too much time designing its paywall, and is disappearing down rabbit-holes best left unexplored unless and until it becomes clear that they need examining.

The NYT‘s paywall is designed to be porous: readers coming in from some other site (Google, Twitter, Facebook, Reuters) will always be able to read the article they’re looking for, even if they’ve used up their monthly quota. As a result, it’s more of a navigation fee than a charge for content.

That’s fine—except Nisenholtz now seems to be backpedaling from that concept, and saying that he’s going to “take great pains” to crack down on people who read a lot of without paying the company.

That’s silly, for three reasons. Firstly, great pains tend to come at non-negligible expense, and there’s no point in spending significant amounts of money unless you think you’ll recoup those costs in extra revenues. In this case, Nisenholtz seems to think that (a) there will be a large number of people trying to find a way around the NYT paywall — and that (b) a significant proportion of those people will end up giving in and subscribing (as opposed to simply going elsewhere), if the paywall is made hard to get around. I very much doubt that he has any concrete evidence that either proposition is true, let alone that both of them are; common sense, then, would dictate that he wait until he gets such evidence before working on bolstering the wall.

Secondly, there are so many ways to get around paywalls—simply deleting your cookies generally does the trick—that there’s no good reason to believe the NYT‘s “great pains” are going to actually work very well in practice.

Finally, the less porous the wall, the more annoying it is—for subscribers and non-subscribers both. That’s simply the way that paywalls work. Strengthening your paywall sends the message that you don’t trust your subscribers, or your subscribers’ non-subscriber friends: you’re treating them as potential content thieves.

Why would Niesenholtz do this? Why won’t he just satisfy himself with raising revenue from loyal readers, rather than trying to prevent people from reading lots of stories? It should be flattering that some people want to read NYT content so badly that they will take the long way round the paywall. Instead, Nisenholtz seems to find it downright threatening. And one possible reason is hinted at by Rick Edmonds:

A Kindle subscription to the Times cost $19.99 a month, and Scott Heeken-Canedy, president of The New York Times newspaper, said that might be indicative of where pricing for full Web access will end up.

If by “will end up” he means “will end up eventually, after we’ve quietly raised the subscription price half a dozen times,” then Niesenholtz’s tactics don’t make sense. But if by “end up” he means “will end up being when the paywall goes live next year”, then they do.

$20 per month is a large amount of money for people to pay for a product they’re used to getting for free, and indeed it’s so large that most of the NYT‘s regular readers will simply refuse to pay it. In that situation, the subset of people who will pay but only if the paywall is a tough one might start becoming relevant.

Niesenholtz says that 15% of current visitors view 20 pages or more per month. But people won’t pay $20 to read 20 pages per month: that kind of money only begins to be worth paying once you start reading a few pages per day, or say 100 pages per month. Let’s say that 5% of current visitors fall into that bucket, and that of that 5%, only one in ten will actually pay $20 a month for website access. (I’m not counting print or iPad subscribers who get free access to the website with their other subscription.)

At that point, Niesenholtz is directly monetizing just 0.5% of his visitor base—a number which is small enough that grabbing a few people who otherwise like to find a way round paywalls could actually make a significant difference.

I think it would be silly to start the paywall experiment at a high $20-a-month price point. Somewhere between $5 and $10 would make more sense. But if the NYT really is considering making a $240-a-year product, then maybe that explains their newfound emphasis on cracking down on those who would try to get around it.


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