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.

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