Thursday, December 2, 2010

Examining the New York Times Paywall

I recently watched The Soloist - and enjoyed it, wonderful film - and it got me (re)thinking about the state of the journalism profession in today's information-enabled world. I was once all for tearing down the walled gardens of the news media (and confess that I still find that to be a beautiful idea in a certain light) but the now older and wiser me realizes that it's really important that a profession wherein people are payed to investigate, to dig up the truth at any cost, and to report those findings dispassionately is one worth keeping around. I really wish money could stay out of the equation altogether since, after all, what the public is willing to buy isn't always what qualifies as good journalism, but it's the system of reward that we've decided for ourselves, so I guess I have to work with it.

Don't get me wrong - blogs and bloggers are great (if I do say so myself) and I get a lot of information from them but, by and large, it's almost impossible for someone to be a professional blogger. There are stories I've wanted to write, but never will just because they require more effort than I'm willing to put in to do them justice without some kind of payoff. You need absurd amounts of traffic to get the amount of click-throughs necessary to generate even a modest income. I mean, just ask the New York Times. They get more traffic than any blog will ever get some 200M pageviews every month, but they'd need something like 1.3B/mo in order to stay solvent in the long term while still keeping their paper free (source). (Granted they have way more overhead than a blog does, but you see my point.)

So I'm softly in favor of paywalls because of the people-should-get-paid-for-a-job-well-done thing, and also because of something my friend Ray said on Facebook a bit ago: "If you are getting a service for free you're not the consumer, you're the product being sold." Digging into that is an entire other post, I think, but doesn't that idea skeeve you out just a little bit? [/shudders]

Anyway, speaking of paywalls and the New York Times, I'm sure everyone knows that they're going to be putting up a paywall starting next year. I also found some discussions about the proposed New York Times paywall wherein they are divining what the structure might look like from some of the surveys the Times has commissioned. I don't have access to their user data or their research - in fact all I have access to is my own common sense and some random stuff I can find on Google - but I'm not entirely convinced that their model is going to work, at least not for the industry as a whole.

Clearly, the Times is going to see a drop in readership, and they're expecting that. They're hoping what virtually every other news organization watching this experiment is hoping: that a smaller group of subscribers will generate more revenue than a larger group of ad-supported readers. They have smartly recognized that reader behavior is complicated. For instance, there are people that read them regularly, who go out of their way to visit the New York Times site independently, and then there are people that find New York Times articles by happenstance, via blog links and Twitter posts and Facebook statuses, etc. (There's also a squishy middle I realize, but, since I don't have any real data to work with, I hope you'll allow me the conceit of ignoring them for the purposes of this discussion.)

In recognition of these two groups, they have decided on a preferential access system. Subscribers get unlimited access for a nominal fee (as yet undecided upon), and occasional readers will get limited access. This neatly keeps the same two groups in the same two piles; most of the regulars will convert to subscribers (they hope) and the ones that don't will likely become occasional readers. Some of both groups will probably ditch completely, but I would think that anyone who reads them on a "regular" basis must enjoy/need the content and so would gladly take the crumbs if they can't get the cookie.

At our currently 30,000 foot view, this design makes a lot of sense. However, as it so often is, the devil is in the details. It seems like they're going to make every user create a username, regardless of frequency of use. Well, I don't have to speculate anymore, the paywall went up as I was writing this post (which is kind of spooky). I'm not sure if they're actually taking money yet, but there's definitely a login barrier, so they are going with usernames for everybody. Look for yourself:

Frankly, I think they chose the worst possible option. The majority of the occasional users, the users who only show up because they got linked over to it, are probably going to turn right back around and go home at this point. Some will grin and bear it if they really really wanted to read that article, or if they have the foresight to realize that they may want to read more articles at some point in the future, but I'm betting that most won't. It seems like they're trying to get people to create accounts first and then later they'll dole out the payment structure (I didn't see any payment options when I clicked through to the account creation pages), which says to me that someone there seems to understand this user behavior and is attempting to mitigate it by phasing in the paywall. But there are two options I can think of that are better than this:

  1. Use of federated login systems. Facebook, Twitter, OpenID, etc. are all incredibly popular and successful examples. If they login page allowed you to sign up with any of those, that would simply be a one-time extra hurdle that I think a lot more people would be likely to jump.
  2. Target information gatekeepers. This is something I thought up on the bus today. In short, the Times (or whatever entity) could create their own URL shortening service - say,, for example. Subscribers would get full access to all articles no matter how they were accessed, and they would be able to share the articles with friends via a convenient sharing button on every article that would create the special shortened link (which could be wrapped in another if need be). Non-subscribers would only get access via these shortened urls and would see standard ad-supported pages. The sessions would time-out after xx minutes and wouldn't allow the same IP/MAC address to use the same link twice in the same xx period of time in order to discourage gaming the system. Suddenly all those self-professed social media gurus actually have a way to get all that power they claim to have (in their own minds, anyway) and will likely pay a fairly good fee to get that privilege. All everyone else has to do is follow them on Twitter or Facebook or subscribe to their blog, which they're probably doing already if said people really are Connectors or Mavens. This system mimics the way the paper works in real life. Someone buys it, reads it, then leaves it in the coffee shop for someone else to pick up and read later. (Note: mimicking real life with digital technology isn't always a good idea, so this may actually work realllllly terribly, but it sounds good in my head.)
We'll see how the paywall pans out, but I'm not convinced that it will as it's currently implemented.

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