Why the NYT paywall isn’t like the FT’s

By Felix Salmon
August 15, 2011
Fred Wilson has nice things to say about my analysis of the NYT paywall -- thanks, Fred! -- but it's worth teasing out one area where he and I might differ.

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Fred Wilson has nice things to say about my analysis of the NYT paywall — thanks, Fred! — but it’s worth teasing out one area where he and I might differ.

Fred says that the NYT “went with the FT’s model”, and I’ve also heard privately from another person making an impassioned case that the NYT and FT models are basically the same.

But they’re not.

The NYT paywall is so porous that it can be considered to be a genuinely freemium model. If you follow a link to the NYT site, you will never run into the paywall — no matter how many times you do so or how many NYT articles you’ve read that month. If you then want to stay on the NYT site and read other stories there, it’s very easy to do that too: the paywall might appear, but it’s easy to circumvent. (One popular way of doing this: just strip off the extra garbage in the URL which summons the paywall.)

That’s why I likened the NYT paywall to a polite “please keep off the grass” sign, with symbolic low green hoops separating would-be readers from their desired content. If they want to get there, it’s easy to do so; the NYT is just making it clear to them that it would like them to pay for a subscription first. Being both polite and reasonably wealthy, it turns out that hundreds of thousands of nytimes.com readers have done just that.

At the FT, by contrast, the paywall was much less porous from day one, and has been tightened up substantially since then. In fact, with the exception of Google’s First Click Free program, the FT has deliberately made it as hard as it possibly can for non-subscribers to read its content.

The difference between the NYT and the FT, then, is that the porousness of the paywall is a feature at the NYT and a bug at the FT. Yes, both of them have an official meter which counts how many stories you’re allowed to read before the paywall gets thrown up. That’s the crack-dealer model of selling content: give ‘em a little for free, and soon they’ll be begging for more. The free stories you read before the paywall goes up aren’t a porous paywall, they’re an integral part of the whole paywall model.

Put the question this way: when it comes to paywalls, is the FT more like the NYT, or is it more like the WSJ? The WSJ doesn’t have a meter; it has a more old-fashioned system where some articles are free to everybody and others sit behind the wall.

But I’m more interested in how forbidding the wall is, rather than in where and how exactly it’s placed. Both the FT and the WSJ are signed up for First Click Free, which means that both of them are susceptible to the elaborate workaround of copying the headline, pasting it into Google News, and then clicking through from there. Beyond that, both of them basically make it as hard as possible for non-subscribers to read stories behind the wall.

If I link to a WSJ or FT article, I can have no assurance that my readers will be able to read it. The same is true with respect to sharing that article on Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook or even LinkedIn. (The exception is Google Plus, since First Click Free is in effect there.) More generally, if a non-subscriber wants to read a specific story behind the WSJ or FT paywall, it’s very hard for them to do so, compared to the NYT site, where it’s much easier.

That’s why I like the NYT paywall and lump the WSJ and FT paywalls together. Whether there’s a meter or not is pretty much irrelevant, especially considering the way in which the FT has steadily tightened up its meter to the point at which non-subscribers can barely read anything at all. Even subscribers, like myself, find it very hard to read FT content a lot of the time: try following a Twitter link to an FT story on your mobile device, or trying to read an FT story in Flipboard, and you’ll see what I mean.

The NYT paywall is generous to subscribers and non-subscribers alike, and the NYT has managed to keep both goodwill and traffic with respect to its non-subscribers. That can’t be said of the WSJ and FT, who take a much more hostile and adversarial approach to the people who aren’t paying them hard cash. The NYT sees value in remaining accessible to everybody; the FT and WSJ see value in restricting access only to paid subscribers.

Which is why I think it’s fundamentally misconceived to think of the FT paywall as being very similar to the NYT paywall. Rather, it’s at heart the same as the WSJ paywall: a way of restricting content as much as possible to subscribers exclusively. The NYT is a free website with a mechanism for getting readers to subscribe; the FT and WSJ are subscription websites with some content available for free. It’s the NYT model which I love, not what’s going on at the FT.

10 comments

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I hit the NYT Paywall from Twitter regularly. I suspect I’m not the only one.

Posted by timothyogden | Report as abusive

@Felix… and Others.
I am seeking some feedback… I am actually thinking of becoming a subscriber to WSJ,NYT or FT. Which one would you recommend ? Which one do you find more objective as far as content goes… Which one do you read the most… Thank You!

Posted by Variation | Report as abusive

The FT’s subscription system is so broken that I couldn’t renew my subscription, and so I no longer pay for or read it.

By contrast, I still read NYT articles, but working out what a subscription would cost turned out to be so hard that it’s easier to just circumvent the paywall.

UI engineering is not an optional extra when your business is the web. I don’t think these guys quite get it, but perhaps the NYT eventually will.

Posted by DrFuManchu | Report as abusive

Count me with timothyogden and i’ve removed the NYT from my twitterfeed because of that. Now access 100% via google and no worries or sweat.

Posted by ottorock | Report as abusive

@Variation — go with the one you love the most.

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive

“Paying for something you value, even when you don’t need to, is a mark of a civilized society.” How do we measure the value of Judith Miller in girl war reporter regalia posing on the front page of the NYT? As opposed to the little girl with her parents’ blood spattered on her face?

Posted by RogerB | Report as abusive

“If you follow a link to the NYT site, you will never run into the paywall — no matter how many times you do so or how many NYT articles you’ve read that month.”

What timothyogden and ottorock Said.

What has changed is that I no longer use the NYT as the front page for my daughters’s computer. And I never link to the NYT in a blog post. And I never send one out on a Twitter feed unless it’s a retweet.

Except for the first, the reason for all of those is that the NYT consistently blocks my access–even though my only accessing of it is through social media (blogs who do link to it, Twitter feeds, Google Reader links to Krugman’s blog, etc.) that are supposedly not counted toward the “20 free.”

And I won’t screw over someone else who is having the same experience.

So, no, Felix, I don’t believe the NYT paywall is working. Neither does Brad DeLong (who, like you, pays them). The only thing it has done is show that the NYT considers a YouTube video posted to a blog for which the author is not compensated pari passu with Google’s purchase of the remaining semi-profitable part of MOT.

If that be victory for the newspaper, King Pyhrrus should accept the Roman surrender immediately.

Posted by klhoughton | Report as abusive

To me the difference is simple: I still follow links to the NYT, whereas I know not to bother clicking on a link to the FT. The FT might as well not exist, whereas the NYT gives me the option of supporting them to be able to use their editors as a curator.

Posted by BlakeA | Report as abusive

You should be grateful to paywalls, Felix. The FT paywall is the reason I became addicted to econ-blogs, yours included. And then I discovered the Google first click workaround, and I’m pretty satisfied to use it to read the few FT articles that I still wanted to read.

I find it quite worrying that there doesn’t seem to be a working business model for journalism yet with today’s information technologies. And there is no guarantee that one will be discovered soon.

I remember when I studied art history at school, I was surprised that there were times where particular forms of art simply didn’t have any quality artists. Eventually I found out that it is because there have been times in history when particular forms of art simply didn’t have a good business model, like poetry right now. There are still many people who write poetry, but they know they will be very unlikely to make a living with it, becoming rich is pretty much impossible, and there isn’t any great social status or other perks attached to being a poet. So there’s no way they will ever perfect their craft to the level of people who lived in times when poetry did pay, either in money or in other perks.

The same applies to journalism. There were fantastic journalistic books produced in the seventies and eighties, when a journalist would go and research a particular subject for five years, and come back reporting about it in a highly readable form with an astounding level of detail. Those kind of books don’t seem to be written any more, because the business model for them doesn’t exist. Journalistic books have to be produced in a matter of months. The same could happen to many other types of good journalism: they could entirely disappear because of a lack of business model, and journalists may never have a chance to become any good at things that are highly popular, but unfortunately don’t pay.

Posted by Doly | Report as abusive

You make a good point about walls and the message they send. Exclusivity and hostility can lose you future subscribers; moreover, you may alienate potential ones in the present.

This podcast had an interesting part about sacrificing long-term loyalty for short-term gain: http://www.npr.org/blogs/2011/01/26/05/t he_friday_podcast_can_a_publi.html, circa 9:00. I don’t think their market research captured the full spectrum of npr listeners — which is maybe where the difference between t-shirts and media comes in, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Habits and loyalty are like trust. They take time to build, and it has to happen willingly. It’s a cooperative endeavor. Once broken, they require additional efforts to rebuild.

To the commenter above, I share your concern about viable business models. However, I feel the same way about journalism here as I do about primary school teachers. If people need great social status, perks or boatloads of money to do it, they probably aren’t the kind of people you want to see following that calling.

Posted by caycep | Report as abusive