Friday, March 18, 2011


The New York Times paywall cometh

Yesterday, the NY Times sent this message by email to all registered users. An excerpt:

This week marks a significant transition for The New York Times as we introduce digital subscriptions. It’s an important step that we hope you will see as an investment in The Times, one that will strengthen our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers around the world and on any platform. The change will primarily affect those who are heavy consumers of the content on our Web site and on mobile applications.

Here’s their FAQ list and the prices. As you can see, the minimum charge is $15 per month, which comes to $180 per year. That’s a lot, especially compared with free. Part of the charge is for use of smartphone or tablet apps, and they do not offer a subscription that’s web only.

Cory, at BoingBoing, doesn’t think it will work, and I agree with him. There’s bound to be confusion about how much you can see. For instance, while, according to the FAQ, you’ll always be able to read things that someone posts to a blog or that you get from a Google search, they will count against your 20 free articles a month. So if you’re not a subscriber, you can read 20 articles from the Times site, and then read 20 (or 40, or 80) more posted on someone’s blog... if you do it in that order. But if you read the articles from the 20 blog posts first and then want to snag an article directly off the Times site, you’ll have to pay. You gonna keep track of that?

Well, they say they’ll keep track of it for you, but, really, it seems a complicated mess.

Apart from that, I wonder about the links I’ve already posted. I presume that blog links will be identified in a way that the site can recognize, tagged with a token of some sort. It seems unlikely that using the referrer field that the browser sends would be reliable enough for them. But all those old Times links I’ve been posting for the last five years lack any sort of tag, so will those suddenly be blocked by the paywall? Probably, and that will be very irritating.

I also take exception to their characterization of the change as affecting primarily heavy consumers of the content on our Web site. 20 articles a month is nothing, and I would not call someone who reads one article a day a heavy consumer, in any sense. No, this will have a profound effect on the habits of a great many casual Times users, who check out a couple of items a day or so. If I want just 5 articles a month beyond the 20 free ones, I’ll have to pay $15 each month for that.

I likely won’t. I almost assuredly won’t.

So the result will be that the Times will no longer be my go-to news source for background on what I say in these pages. I’ll look to other sources instead. And I’ll do that with sadness and regret, because I think the New York Times is the best source around... and that’s the best reason I can think of for them to look for ways to fund their content other than by charging for it, article by article. They’re a business, yes, but they’re also a public service, and an important one.

Or perhaps it’s that they’re not a public service any longer. Sigh.


Katharine said...

What someone set up, say, 31 email accounts (one for each day of the month), and registered each with the NYT? Could that person then access 20 articles on each account? Not that I would ever do that, of course ;-)))

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

I often (too often) like to say that people value online security so highly that they will pay any price for it, as long as it's free. I fear the same is true for first-class news sources like the NY Times. I share your belief that they're among the best news sources out there -- and I share your near-certainty that I'm not gonna pay $180/year for it. What this says about human nature is rather sad, I think.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Well, first of all, anything coming from a link will be good. Your readers won't have to pay.

Kindle (and Nook, I presume) are already subscriptions, so nothing changes there.

And you won't have to pay for article by article if you just get a subscription.

I think it's interesting that people expect the print subscribers to carry the load of making it free for the millions who want it but won't pay. And, yes: I am a subscriber, so I'm already paying, so my views aren't, I guess, relevant to the discussion.

Barry Leiba said...

The problem with the "coming from a link" bit is that we don't have the technical details of how they'll do it (at least, I don't). There are at least two ways that can do that. One is by using the referrer information sent by the browsers, and the other is to give the personal posting the link a special URL that includes a free-access token.

The former method raises the question of how they decide which referrers get free links. If they'll take any referrer, then it's too open, and the system will be essentially useless. If they have a list of approved ones, we get questions of how they decide who's on the list and who's not, and how you get your blog on the list if it isn't already. And it's still easy to get around, by spoofing the referrer information (a trivial Firefox or Chrome add-on).

The latter is more secure from their point of view (if it's done right the code could be tied to the subscriber and the article, to make general replays harder), but it means that any older links that people have posted will stop being free.

There's also the issue that following the "free" links still affects how many other articles you can see for free. Look at 15 links from blogs, and you only have 5 free articles left this month. That's not really the same as the blog links being completely free. You can still see 60 free blog links, but you won't have any free articles left if you go directly to the Times site. That's strange, and confusing.

They have no way of linking Kindle and web subscriptions now, though they plan to. So if you want both, you have to pay for both, at least for now (this according to their FAQ).

But the final analysis is as you and Nathaniel say: we can go on about how they have to find a different funding/business model, but there's something sad about some of us not being willing to pay for the content that we think is so valuable. I'm going to have to think on that some more.

Brent said...

At least, for now, if you subscribe to the physical paper, then the digital access is free. Not clear yet how many days per week will qualify.

The Ridger, FCD said...

@Brent: I have the weekend subscription (the local carrier simply CANNOT get it here by 6) and they sent me ... an email (sorry, Barry; "sent me email saying" just doesn't work for me) saying that I'm totally covered. (I also get a PDF digest in my inbox every day for nothing extra.)

Brent said...

I am thinking of going from 7 days/wk to the weekend only...if it includes the full digital.