Internet and Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: The New York Times reinvents the 'paywall'

April 23, 2011

Everything old is new again, even on the Web. The New York Times, the Gray Lady of journalism, has decided to once again huddle behind a “paywall,” a decision that’s galvanized the Web world. But this paywall is different from ones the paper has tried in the past.

Let me explain paywalls. When the Internet first expanded beyond academia and became available commercially, companies rushed to figure out how to make a buck on it, besides just providing access to the network.

Merchants who migrated to the Web found the transition relatively easy, if quite different in concept from stocking shelves and training salespeople. At least nobody could pilfer their goods without plunking down some kind of payment first.

The same couldn’t be said for publishers like newspapers and magazines, which also quickly moved to put their wares online. Content is just words and pictures, so they’re easy to grab without payment. When publishers’ words and pictures were downloaded, they had nothing else to sell, and they just as quickly moved to make the downloads pay-for-play, too, just as the merchants did. Everyone from pornography vendors to the Gray Lady herself set up what came to be known as “paywalls,” restrictions on access that relaxed only when payment was rendered.

Paywalls proved all but useless. The Web is the world’s fastest gossip-monger. It can flash news around the world almost before it happens, and then perhaps thousands of bloggers dive in and pass it on, often simply reproducing the actual text from the publisher. Even if you wanted your news straight from the source, it wasn’t hard to circumvent most paywalls.

For many years, a site called BugMeNot (www.bugmenot.com) allowed readers to share their paywall IDs and passwords. A search for “www.newyorktimes.com” on BugMeNot might return dozens or hundreds of various IDs, most of them current and capable of being used by anyone. Eventually, the paywalls became a bit more sophisticated and difficult to get past, but they were still about as secure as a papier-maché bank vault. Many publishers eventually gave up and dropped their paywalls as being too expensive to bother with.

Now the venerable Times has resurrected the paywall idea, and the Web is abuzz about it. Unlike the old days, it’s not a fortress, but more like an enforced rationing system. Anybody can access up to 20 articles per month without paying a fee. In addition, you can get a maximum of five additional articles per day if you click through to the New York Times site from one of five search engines: Ask, AOL, Bing, Google or Yahoo. After that, you’re cut off until you pay the subscription fee. If you already have a subscription to the Times, it automatically includes your online fee.

True to its nature, the Web is already bulging with ways to get around the Times paywall.

It should be said that the Times isn’t reverting to the days of the moat-and-castle protection schemes of the past, so circumvention may be more an idle challenge than a need. Rather, the paper is allowing the casual, occasional visitor to read its material while trying to control the server-poundings it gets from Times addicts.

This is what sets the Times’ paywall apart: The company is trying to accommodate the Web culture while still getting value out of its work. As the Times itself notes, most visitors won’t notice any difference. It’s only that small number of voracious readers who will have to pony up. The Web is watching to see how this works out.

I imagine that other publishers, like The Wall Street Journal and Newsday, both of which have notorious paywalls, are also watching closely. The Web is a place of constant experimentation, and the Times may have just come up with a winning solution to a vexing problem.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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