Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reflections on the paywall

It's been a year since the New York Times set up a paywall that restricts access to their online content. 20 items per month are free, multimedia and blogposts do count to the 20 items. I do have some NYT feeds in my reader, but I'm not a very committed reader. I'm not even committed enough to bother figuring out how to circumvent the limit.

The NYT paywall did however have a noticeable effect on me. Whenever I saw a title in my feed that looked potentially interesting, I asked myself "Would I pay for this?" The answer was almost always "No." Since I more or less unconsciously carried over this thought to my other feeds, this has dramatically slimmed down the time I need to get through the unread items, because I no longer click on everything that looks kinda interesting. I am very grateful to the NYT for that education, and I'm sure my daughters are too. I'm not so sure that was the desired effect.

During the last year, I ran into the NYT paywall once. It was the 31st of the month, and it happened because I didn't know that they do count blogposts to the 20 free items.

The Globe and Mail reports that the NYT paywall successfully boosted the number of subscriptions. The NYT just announced that by next month they'll cut the number of free articles to ten. I'm wondering now if it makes sense to just remove them from my reader completely.

I dislike the NYT paywall not because they're trying to make money, but because they expect the reader to pay before they know what they get. I would vastly prefer a system in which I can click a button at the end of an article and put a few dollars in the writer's pocket. I know that there are tools for that already. It is puzzling to me why newspapers aren't using it.

I would prefer this for two reasons. First, I do value high quality written information very much. If I read a good article online that gives me something to think about, I'd be willing to pay for it. But then I want the money to go to the writer of the article I liked. Second, if I buy a book, I'll read some reviews and the blurb and open it and make up my mind. You can't do that with short reads. I find it virtually impossible to tell whether an article is worth reading from its title and/or its first 2 sentences. It's like you'd try to figure out if a song is worth downloading from a 1 second snippet. (I don't even buy songs based on the 30 second snippets. 30 seconds do however work just fine to recognize a song heard elsewhere.)

Part of the reason the NYT took this step might be the realization that financing web content by advertisement is not a good arrangement. Not only doesn't it bring in enough money, it also annoys the reader and creates an incentive for increasing traffic, not for increasing quality. Advertisements also carry hidden costs for the consumers. One might get the article free, but then one pays for the advertisement because the price of the product that is being advertised goes up.

I am basically blind to advertisements. Stefan and I, we once were in Frankfurt downtown by car, stopped first in line at a red light. We stood there for a minute or two, and when the traffic moved on Stefan asked what I thought of the advertisement. "Which advertisement?" I said. "The 30 feet high advertisement on the building you've been starting at for 2 minutes?" I hadn't seen it. (I saw it later. It featured a very photoshopped woman in a very tiny bikini. I forgot what they were trying to sell.) Making use of the principle of mediocrity, I would guess that most people share my selective blindness.

That having been said, while my brain does a good job filtering out adverts, I am annoyed by ads because it's ugliness that doesn't serve any purpose. If I need product information I'll look for it. Plastering the planet with advertisements is so yesterday. It's a relic from the times when you needed advertisements to make people aware of your shop, your service, your product. Now my phone delivers all the information I want exactly when I need it.

So to me it's clear that financing web content by advertisements has limits, and we reached them years ago. I understand the economical impossibility of providing content for free, which opens the question how to do it best. The NYT paywall doesn't make sense to me. Why for example is content free if you are directed there by a blog? It's the person recommending your content that is primarily expected to pay for it?

Jaron Lanier in his book "You are not a gadget" argues for micropayments. As long as I can chose what I find worth paying for, I am in favor of that. There's an interesting thread on that... at the NYT blogs.

Do you read the NYT? If so, what has been your experience with the paywall?


  1. And in their infinite wisdom NYT has halved the free looks down to 10 per month. http://news.yahoo.com/york-times-tightens-paywall-halves-monthly-free-articles-161406113.html
    I shall just have to ration my views of Paul Krugman's articles as he's the only regular columnist worth reading there IMHO.

  2. The Times (London) took their online content behind a paywall some time ago. They don't even allow one to link to an article if one is not a subscriber, one just hits the paywall.
    As I pay £1 per day for the printed edition* I find this a bit annoying as I can't share interesting articles with anyone.
    I will not pay to use The Times website because the paying structure is too complicated, and also there are plenty of good news and feature sources free on the web, such as the BBC, The Guardian and all the other UK newspapers.

    *which I like because it is a refreshing change from looking at screens all day and into the evening. Browsing is also a different experience with a print product than on the web.

  3. Hi Maxine,

    Right, I've encountered the Times paywall a couple of times. I understand the preference for print. In fact, anything longer than, say, 2 pages, I print and read on paper. We have no subscription to a daily newspaper because I find I rarely read them. Also: so much paper that goes into the garbage... We have however an overdose of weekly and monthly magazines. I prefer the less frequently published ones because they don't contain so much useless information. Does the Times make online content available for free for subscribers to the print edition? Best,


  4. NYT reportage is best viewed at its source, hence Google. Only the title is needed.

    "a very photoshopped women in a very tiny bikini" The Coolidge effect! Cohort advertising demands targeted lies. A man risks social emasculation from Diet Coke, hence macho black can Coke Zero.

    If a NYT employee does product, and its manager is rewarded for process, product is illusory. Present a cosmetic PowerPoint presentation - with process analysis and parameterized future projections - afterward.

  5. "(I saw it later. It featured a very photoshopped women in a very tiny bikini. I forgot what they were trying to sell.) Making use of the principle of mediocrity, I would guess that most people share my selective blindness."

    Well not the men, I can assure you:-)

  6. I think it was a good decision for the NYT not to pay-block articles that are linked to from outside the site, as it avoids annoying new readers. (This is exactly opposite the decision made by Facebook, which has been introducing middle-man apps that one has to add in order to visit linked articles.) I like your idea of a micro-payment button at the end of articles. Are there such systems out there, where one signs up for an account, and then makes micropayments afterwords, maybe with credit card charges made monthly? iTunes is close I think. Also, if you do want to get around the NYT paywall with a bit of hacking, some javascript will do the trick: http://toys.euri.ca/

  7. Yes Bee, the NY Times does provide access to print subscribers. There is also a nice iPad app. I do most of my reading over breakfast from the print edition, but use the iPad app sometimes to revisit something or find something I missed before trashing the paper. The print edition is pricy, but I find it's the only paper that I can tolerate at breakfast. I don't think I care for the paywall, and if I give up my print edition I'll probably skip it.

  8. Hi Garrett,

    Thanks for the link. This site lists some presently available micropayment tools. The one that I came across a few times was a different one however. It came with an icon of a little purse. I forgot what it was called, maybe it doesn't exist anymore. Best,



  9. I dislike the NYT paywall not because they're trying to make money, but because they expect the reader to pay before they know what they get. I would vastly prefer a system in which I can click a button at the end of an article and put a few dollars in the writer's pocket. I know that there are tools for that already. It is puzzling to me why newspapers aren't using it.

    I wonder how this could be implemented without the writer/publisher being ripped off.

  10. Hi Navneeth,

    Of course the writers will be ripped off. The question is how frequently this happens. If you allow customers to sit in a bookstore, drink coffee and read through all the comic books, this also rips off publishers. But apparently it's not so many people who do that. I may be wrong of course, but I think that most people have an awareness that if they are given something of value, they should give something back. And isn't using an ad-block ripping off the advertiser? After all, they paid for it.

    There is an interesting discussion about that in Goldsmith and Wu's book. It's not about articles but about songs. In that case it turned out that most people were more comfortable using a service like iTunes, where you're paying for what you get, than ripping off the singers or songwriters whose music they liked.

    Either way, I think it would at least be worth a try.



  11. Of course the writers will be ripped off. The question is how frequently this happens. If you allow customers to sit in a bookstore, drink coffee and read through all the comic books, this also rips off publishers. But apparently it's not so many people who do that."

    A famous philosopher noted "On the internet, no-one knows that you are a dog". In other words, what works in real life doesn't always work on the internet and vice-versa. I'm sure if micropayments after consumption were a valid alternative, more people would be using them.

  12. Hi Bee,

    As a journalist and regular reader, I'm sorry to say that micropayments just don't work. Journalism is incredibly resource intensive, and not enough people will pay for what is free.

    But there is hope! Check out Matter, a new project started by a couple of respected guys in the biz. It's more along the lines of what you would like to see (though you still have to pay to read).

    As a final note, just a reminder that Nature News is free to read as much as you like!


  13. Hi Geoff,

    Has somebody actually tried? Nature is incidentally the most annoying feed in my reader, sorry to say. Because I have no journal access at home and in my reader it doesn't say which articles are and which aren't subscription free. So I either have to click on them just to find out that I can't read them, or I just mark them read without looking. Best,


  14. Hi Bee,

    I'm pretty sure that papers have experimented on a small scale with micropayments, but they've never gotten it even close to working (unfortunately I can't dig up an example at the moment, but perhaps someone else can).

    I'm not saying it will never work, just that at the moment, most newspaper readers aren't the types to accept the technology.

    Sorry to hear that Nature's RSS feed angers you! Not my department I'm afraid.


  15. Hi Geoff,

    Yes, you are right. The technological hurdle matters a lot. It would have to be exceedingly simple, such that you sign up once and then it's merely a one-click procedure, and most importantly the same everywhere. I recently read a column somewhere (SciAm I believe) about how important it is to "reduce friction." Same thing here. Best,


  16. PS: I meant this article Make Technology--and the World--Frictionless by David Pogue. I think he has a point.

  17. Initially the Times asked non-paying online subscribers like me for input regarding their plans to set up a paywall. It occurred to me that they could make a lot more money charging a minimal fee, such as, say, $15 a year, rather than $15 a month, as they do now, and this is what I suggested. Of course, my suggestion was ignored.

    It seems to me they don't understand that content delivered via a website involves far less overhead than content delivered via newsprint. If they sell the equivalent of 1,000,000 papers online it costs them no more than selling one or two dozen.

    They still have to pay their reporters and columnists regardless, but they don't have to pay the enormous costs of paper, ink, transport, etc. They also fail to understand that a really low price has the potential to attract far more subscribers than the relatively high one they are now charging.

    10,000,000 people paying $15 a year will bring in $150 million per year, while 100,000 paying $15 a month will amount to only $18 million. At only 15 a year, they can expect far more subscribers and thus far more income, it seems to me.

    This is a very basic error made by a great many publishers used to thinking in hard copy terms.

  18. Hi Bee,

    I see what you mean about wanting to see what you're getting before you pay, but that has its downsides. We *want* newspapers and magazines to publish things of public service that are not necessarily going to be the most popular articles, or whose benefit you may not immediately recognize. Imagine if students paid for each individual class rather than a full term -- how would that change the dynamic in the clasroom? I have a subscription to the NYT and, for all that I complain about individual articles, I value their integrated benefit.


  19. Hi George,

    I know exactly what you mean. But if it's a public service, it should be funded like a public service. And at least to my knowledge the NYT is presently a business. I would even argue that micropayments are better suited for articles whose relevance isn't immediately obvious, because the writer has an incentive to create something that will in the long run catch a lot of attention rather than on that one day when it's on the front page. Best,


  20. Hi Bee,

    The only problem I have with the idea of micro payments is the same I have with the practice of tipping, which is to understand there are good tippers and bad ones. That is it’s always annoyed me that I and others continuously subsidize the bad tippers of the world for the good service that they receive. I think perhaps a compromise would be to have a graduated scale of prepayment reflecting the anticipated number of articles one might read. In that regard I would propose the same for journals when it comes to the general public’s access; well at least in the so called first world nations.

    Best ,


  21. I have subscribed to the dead tree home delivery edition for 40 years, so I don't ever hit the paywall. It's a GREAT newspaper!



If the number of comments exceeds 200 you must click LOAD MORE at the bottom of the page to see all comments. This is also true for replies to threads. I know this sucks. Please complain to Google about this, not to me.

Comment moderation on this blog is turned on. Submitted comments will only appear after manual approval, which can take up to 24 hours.

Comments posted as "Unknown" go straight to junk. You may have to click on the orange-white blogger icon next to your name to change to a different account.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.