After years of anticipation and public and internal debate, the New York Times has announced that it will put up a web paywall, limiting visitors to 20 free articles a month, beginning March 28. Pricing plans begin at $15/month. Print subscribers will get access for free. The paywall will allow incoming links from Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc., to pass through, in an attempt to keep the New York Times connected to the vital arena of Internet-based social networking.
Here are a few links that followed the announcement, ranging from the chatty (an interview with Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz) to the dismissive (Cory Doctorow pointing out how easy it will be to spoof past the paywall) to the substantial (a detailed analysis of the possible financial outcomes).
I am not impressed by the New York Times decision, because I favor free advertiser-supported models for topical and newsy content. I’ve written about this quite a lot on Literary Kicks — here, here, here (the last couple got me into a spirited debate with John Williams of The Second Pass, a worthy adversary on any topic), and then again here and here.
My history with this question goes back much further. I became a moderate advocate for the advertiser-supported content model while managing the advertising technology department for Time Inc. New Media in the mid-to-late 1990s. In this capacity, I had the opportunity to meet with Martin Nisenholtz at the New York Times offices. Back then, our Time Inc. content was fully open to the world, while Nisenholtz kept the New York Times behind a free registration paywall: you had to give the New York Times your email address to read the paper online. I didn’t favor this model back then, but I admired Nisenholtz’s leadership skills and his clear focus on potential commerce strategies, even at the expense of traffic.
Today, a decade and a half later, Martin Nisenholtz is still running the digital show at the New York Times. That kind of longevity (in this insane industry) is an accomplishment in itself. Will the paywall succeed? I don’t think so. The big problem is not that hackers will spoof their way through the paywall. It’ll be easy enough to do, but this won’t have a big impact on the success or failure of the experiment. Rather, the problem is that the Times will lose position and viability among the big content players on the open web, and will not bring in enough subscription revenue to make up the difference.
The best-case scenario for the New York Times — and this must be their hope-based strategy — is that other providers of deep content will join them, and together starve the free web of high-quality news and culture reporting. If this were to happen, the Times paywall would prove itself a success. I don’t believe this will happen.
But we’ll find out soon, and that’s the exciting thing about the New York Times announcement. Everybody in the newspaper industry (at least in the USA) has been looking up to the New York Times as the leader in the space, so this experiment will be the bellwether for the industry’s future. After all the debate and disagreement, we’ll soon have real-world results to study.
Maybe everything I’ve written about why this paywall is wrong is itself wrong. I doubt it, but we’ll all find out soon. This is it, the big one. The future of paid online journalistic content, at least for our generation, will be decided right here.