Adventures with paywalls, FT edition

By Felix Salmon
August 23, 2011

Every so often, I get puzzled looks from FT types when I complain about their paywall, and say that it’s not only user-unfriendly for non-subscribers, it’s particularly user-unfriendly for subscribers, too.

Here’s what greeted me this morning when I followed a link to an FT story:

paywall.tiff

What happened was that the page started loading — it got as far as the headline. Then it greyed out, and the paywall box appeared. (And then — this is my favorite bit — a video flash ad started playing on top of the paywall box; it went away before I could get a screengrab.)

You can see, in the greyed out bit, that I’m logged in to the site: it says “Welcome felix” right there. Yet the paywall is asking me to login again.

When I did that, I ended up at the FT.com homepage, rather than the article I wanted to read. So I went back to the link which sent me to the FT and clicked it again. This time, I got this:

paywall2.tiff

This is not much of an improvement. I’m still logged in, but now it thinks I’m a registered reader who’s used up his quota for free articles and who isn’t a subscriber. Not true! I’m a paid subscriber.

If I click on the big button saying “Click here to continue”, however, it treats me as though I have no subscription:

paywall3.tiff

But if I make my way to the “Your account” link, the site still tells me that I have “Unlimited FT.com access”. Ha.

ftaccount.tiff

Now I have a theory for what might be going on here. This is the link I was following; if you look at the URL, it’s a bit of a mess, seems to include the address twice, and has the string “Authorised=false” in the middle. Here it is:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2f5b6c70-ccd5-11e0-88fe-00144feabdc0,Authorised=false.html?_i_location=http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2f5b6c70-ccd5-11e0-88fe-00144feabdc0.html&_i_referer=

I have no idea what might be going on here, but I seem to run into this problem quite a lot when I follow FT links which other people have shared using various social media tools. When a link to the FT escapes into the wild, it seems, the FT tends to treat it with extreme prejudice, and errs on the side of shutting it down. The FT’s OK with people sharing links using its own internal sharing tools, but good old-fashioned linking is not something it’s very cool with.

This is why I say that the FT and NYT paywalls are very different beasts. If someone’s doing the NYT a favor by linking to its stories, the NYT will welcome all those visitors. The FT, by contrast, sends them away, even if they’re FT subscribers.

The FT site works fine for subscribers who read it the old-fashioned way, starting at the homepage and then clicking around. As does the web app on the iPad. But for those of us who get our news from feeds, following links from email or Twitter or Facebook or an RSS reader, the FT paywall is a disaster. And it generates a large amount of ill will from people like me who pay hundreds of dollars a year for “unlimited access” to the site.

17 comments

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I’m also an FT.com premium subscriber, and have run into precisely the same circle of frustration. I call customer service, putting the speakerphone on, and, hopefully costing them something in terms of 800-charges and the use of their customer service person. It really seems like the program that puts the paywall up isn’t talking to their subscription system computer.

Posted by dellbell | Report as abusive

Agreed!!! It’s very frustrating, they really need to sort it out.

Posted by Britonomist | Report as abusive

Well – having discovered this, I will never subscribe.
Not worth the hassle. What a farce.

Posted by TinyTim1 | Report as abusive

FT, you putzes, why have and RSS feed service if you can’t link directly from the feed? Doh!

And Felix, ever notice that some articles and opinions that show up in the RSS feed are not available in the iPad html5 edition? Makes we wonder if I’m missing important stuff on a regular basis.

Posted by idaman | Report as abusive

My guess (fwiw I’m a software developer) is that whomever provided the link to you is a registered user that does not have a paid subscription, hence the authorised=False variable of the URL.

Basically that means that the URL you’re clicking is unique to the particular user that sent it to you. The 2f5b6c70-ccd5-11e0-88fe-00144feabdc0 id is most likely that person’s authentication token. So when you use that URL as opposed to sending a user agnostic URL through the “Send Now” button, the FT website thinks you’re the person that generated the auth token.

The website should, instead, be verifying the auth token of the URL against your authentication cookie (a locally generated file which is saving your correct user name). It’s lazy programming at best and a potential security threat at worst as it may be possible to use that authentication token to hack into other sections (think admin pages) of the website.

Posted by spectre855 | Report as abusive

@spectre855 Additionally, by changing to authorised=true in that URL you can go directly to the article.

Posted by dopplex | Report as abusive

I also subscribe to the FT & totally agree with Felix’s complaints.

Posted by dedalus | Report as abusive

Two things. First, I was incorrect about the guid being a reference to the user. It’s only an identifier for the article. Apparently, FT’s code simply checks for the existence of the Authorised=false variable first and if that is found, does not even bother to verify your authorization against your login cookie.

Second, @dopplex, notice that the article you’re redirected to is an old article from 2008. I believe this is caused by the spaces in the text version of the URL that Felix copied. You should be redirected to an error page but you get this one instead. If you try the same thing from the direct link above, you will still run into the paywall.

Posted by spectre855 | Report as abusive

If you are not a paid subscriber, or even if you are, you can go directly to the article from a Google search.

Posted by frobn | Report as abusive

I have complained to FT about that several times. Each time it was obvious that the service people I emailed with did not bother to read my complaints.

I am very tempted to end my subscription.

Posted by ibidem | Report as abusive

I can’t think of any recent outstanding blog conversation centered on an FT article. Judge Judy’s bailiff encourages more conversations than the FT’s gated links.

After many failed attempts, I won’t try to share links to friends via IM any more. Email the Lex team in confidence, yes, but share a Lex column with diffidence.

The FT has the best financial writing, read by everyone who’s anyone, to be discussed with nobody in earshot of anybody. They should expand the Food & Drink section, as the FT is almost ideal for mute contemplation during chewy meals. It is still a bit too easy for us subscribers to reach an article, sometimes by accidental straining, sometimes by plain bad luck, but I have faith that the FT can solve this.

Posted by entitledtomy | Report as abusive

It is funny – some subscription sites get so concerned with converting free readers to paid that they forget about the user experience once you are a paid subscriber! That is key when it comes to renewal time.

Kathy McCabe
Editor
http://www.subscriptionsiteinsider.com

Posted by subsiteinsider | Report as abusive

I just cancelled my subscription to the FT out of disgust. They dropped the print edition in Texas and equivocated about access to FT.Com. I was using it for teaching purposes in a university–marvelous, ideal vehicle–but their pricing structure and dreadful customer service has led me to this. They obviously don’t give a damn how many educated subscribers they lose.

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