The NYT paywall goes live

By Felix Salmon
March 28, 2011
Staci Kramer is absolutely right that the NYT has a tough battle ahead with the public perception of its paywall, which is going live today.

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Staci Kramer is absolutely right that the NYT has a tough battle ahead with the public perception of its paywall, which is going live today.

The public simply is not going to understand how the paywall works; I’m sure about this because over the past week I’ve come across a number of different NYT staffers — all of whom are involved in the NYT’s blogs, and therefore would you think be pretty attuned to such things — who don’t understand the paywall and believe untrue things about it. If the NYT can’t explain the paywall to its own staff, there’s no way it’s going to be able to explain it to its readers.

Part of the problem is that this paywall is not exactly the same as the paywall which was announced in January 2010. Back then, for instance, we were told this, in a Q&A with CEO Janet Robinson and digital chief Martin Nisenholtz:

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 no longer true, as the official FAQ explains:

We encourage links from Facebook, Twitter, search engines, blogs and social media. When you visit NYTimes.com through a link from one of these channels, that article (or video, slide show, etc.) will count toward your monthly limit of 20 free articles, but you will still be able to view it even if you’ve already read your 20 free articles.

If you spend over a year developing a paywall, then some of your original ideas are likely to evolve and change. But the new system, which I liken to the foul-ball rule in baseball, is certainly harder to understand than the original vision. “Twitter links don’t count” is easy; “Twitter links do count, but you’ll be able to follow them anyway” is much harder. (Twitter links, and links from blogs and Facebook and even the NYT email, all work like foul balls in baseball: if you’re below the strike-out limit, then they count towards your strikes. But you can’t strike out on one and end up hitting the wall.)

There’s confusion about the blogs, too: they are basically behind the paywall, although they do show a bit of leg outside it: the “blog fronts”, like this one, are free and do not count towards your monthly quota. But the minute you click on a “read more” link or otherwise find yourself at a blog entry, like this one, your quota gets increased by one.

This is all pretty confusing, especially to people who have better things to do than spend a lot of time worrying about the mechanics of the NYT paywall. Can you read that blog post? If you’re following my link, then yes, you can always read it. If you’re trying to get there by clicking on the “read more” link at nytimes.com, on the other hand, then at that point you may or may not be able to read it, depending on whether you’re a subscriber, and how many other paywalled items you’ve read that month.

There’s no doubt that this will change blogging at the NYT. Freakonomics has already left the building and is enjoying its new-found freedom by publishing short posts like this one. There’s all manner of reasons why that post wouldn’t ever make it onto nytimes.com, but one of the more invidious is that there’s now a good reason for blog posts to be long. Here’s the end of that post by Nate Silver:

I will work to ensure that any clicks you make to a FiveThirtyEight article will be “worth it.” I’ve always had a pretty high word count, but in recent months, I’ve been gravitating toward even longer and more substantive posts, as opposed to shorter but more frequent ones.

It goes against Blogging 101 principles, but I’ve had a lot of success in life in betting against the conventional wisdom.

This is not a welcome move, from the point of view of the vibrancy of the NYT’s blogs as a whole. My posts tend to the verbose too (although the NYT probably has the world champion in that department), but the fact is that mixing things up and having short posts along with the longer ones is always good form in blogging. The unit of quality for a blog is the blog itself, a living thing, rather than any individual blog entry or even series of entries. But when the NYT’s blogs get put behind a paywall, that changes: suddenly there’s pressure to make each individual post “worth it”. As a result, the blog becomes less bloggy and more like an irregularly-updated online column. This is unlikely to be an improvement.

It’s entirely possible that individuals like Nate — or even myself — can be successful with a combination of long-form blogging and short-form tweeting. But even long-form blogs are likely to be updated more than 20 times a month, which means that any regular reader of Nate’s posts, if they’re not a NYT subscriber, is essentially denying themselves the ability to navigate any of the NYT site at all. (Remember that even if you get to Nate’s posts via his Twitter feed, you’re still eating up your monthly quota of NYT articles every time you read one.) And more generally, it’s not a good idea for the NYT to put in place incentives to blog long rather than short. In fact, it rather undermines the purpose of having blogs in the first place.

Meanwhile, the NYT’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, is going out of his way to insult the people who want to read his website so much that they’re willing to put in place elaborate workarounds to do so.

“Can people go around the system?” Sulzberger, the Times’s publisher, asked at a roundtable discussion hosted by the Paley Center for Media this morning. “The answer is yes, just as if you run down Sixth Avenue right now and you pass a newsstand and you grab a newspaper and keep running, you can read the Times for free.”

“Is it going to be done by the kind of people who value the quality of the New York Times reporting and opinion and analysis? No,” he continued. “I don’t think so. It’ll be mostly high-school kids and people who are out of work.”

Sulzberger should be flattered by these people; instead, he’s likening them to common criminals who steal newspapers on Sixth Avenue. In doing so, he’s taking a leaf out of the music industry’s attitude to people who look for free content online: criminalize them, and set yourself up in an adversarial relationship to them. It didn’t work for the music industry, and it’s an equally bad idea for the NYT.

As the first US readers start hitting the NYT paywall this week, it will be met by varying degrees of confusion and anger. The NYT should be trying its hardest to minimize the ill will it’s likely to generate as people get blocked from reading stories they’re used to getting for free. The @NYTdigitalsubs Twitter account is a start, but it’s clearly not enough.

Meanwhile, here’s a question I’m not sure I want to see answered: if you get a Sunday-only subscription and then suspend delivery of the physical newspaper while you “go on vacation” for a month or two at a time, how long can you drag out your free access to the website before the NYT gets wise to what you’re doing?

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