New York Times paywall: wishful thinking or just crazy?


The New York Times just announced a new paywall that will let you see 20 articles a month and thereafter redirect you to a signup for paid access. However, if you follow a NYT link from some search engines and services like Twitter, you will be able to see the article even if you have exceeded your limit.

This won't work.

Here are some predictions about the #nytpaywall:

1. No one will be able to figure out how it works. Quick: How many links did you follow to the NYT last month? I'll bet you a testicle* that you can't remember. And even if you could remember, could you tell me what proportion of them originated as a social media or search-engine link?

2. Further to that, people frequently visit the NYT without meaning to, just by following a shortened link. Oftentimes, these links go to stories you've already read (after all, you've already found someone else's description of the story interesting enough to warrant a click, so odds are high that a second or even a third ambiguous description of the same piece might attract your click), but which may or may not be "billed" to your 20-freebies limit for the month

3. And this means that lots of people are going to greet the NYT paywall with eye-rolling and frustration: You stupid piece of technology, what do you mean I've seen 20 stories this month? This is exactly the wrong frame of mind to be in when confronted with a signup page (the correct frame of mind to be in on that page is, Huh, wow, I got tons of value from the Times this month. Of course I'm going to sign up!)

4. Which means that lots of people will take countermeasures to beat the #nytpaywall. The easiest of these, of course, will be to turn off cookies so that the Times's site has no way to know how many pages you've seen this month

5. Of course, the NYT might respond by planting secret permacookies, using Flash cookies, browser detection, third-party beacons, or secret ex-Soviet vat-grown remote-sensing psychics. At the very minimum, the FTC will probably be unamused to learn that the Grey Lady is actively exploiting browser vulnerabilities (or, as the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse statute puts it, "exceeding authorized access" on a remote system -- which carries a 20 year prison sentence, incidentally)

6. Even if some miracle of regulatory capture and courtroom ninjarey puts them beyond legal repercussions for this, the major browser vendors will eventually patch these vulnerabilities

7. And even if that doesn't work, someone clever will release one or more of: a browser redirection service that pipes links to nytimes.com through auto-generated tweets, creating valid Twitter referrers to Times stories that aren't blocked by the paywall; or write a browser extension that sets "referer=twitter.com/$VALID_TWEET_GUID", or some other clever measure that has probably already been posted to the comments below

8. The Times isn't stupid. They'll build all kinds of countermeasures to detect and thwart cookie-blocking, referer spoofing, and suchlike. These countermeasures will either be designed to err on the side of caution (in which case they will be easy to circumvent) or to err on the side of strictness -- in which case they will dump an increasing number of innocent civilians into the "You're a freeloader, pay up now" page, which is no way to convert a reader to a customer

Yes, I was going to hate this paywall no matter what the NYT did. News is a commodity: as a prolific linker, I have lots of choice about where I link to my news and the site that make my readers shout at me about a nondeterministic paywall that unpredictably swats them away isn't going to get those links. Leave out the hard news and you've got opinion, and there's no shortage of free opinion online. Some of it is pretty good (and some of what the Times publishes as opinion is pretty bad).

I'm all for finding a business-model for investigative journalism -- and yes, I know how silly it is to talk about journalistic skepticism in the same breath as the NYT, who can't even bring themselves to call torture "torture", though to be fair, it's a big paper that covers itself with both glory and shame -- but for such a business model to work, it has to be viable. A tautology as simple as that should be self-evident even to the most terrified media executive.

Meanwhile, the paywall just makes it harder to link to the Times, reducing its significance to people who use the net for news (that is, everyone with money to spend, give or take). I don't know what will work for the Times, and I applaud experimentation, but it seems to me that you should design your experiments with graceful failure modes. Spending a year or two or three not being linked to is not such a mode.

I only hope that whatever happens with this paywall, the Times is more forthcoming with its data than Rupert Murdoch's Times in the UK, who have spun and fiddled their numbers so much that it's impossible to tell how they're doing (except if they were doing well, you might imagine that they'd be a lot less obfuscatory). Those of us who love news all benefit from shared post-mortems and success stories.

*Not one of mine

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