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.

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