Times Paywall: Survival of the Fittest?

“All the news that’s fit to print,” the long-time slogan of the venerable New York Times, just doesn’t fit anymore. While the Times has had a digital edition for quite some time (and a pretty slick iPad application to boot), it has finally, perhaps reluctantly, succumbed to the realization that print subscriptions are unsustainable.

On March 28, the Times is instituting “digital subscriptions” in the U.S. and around the world. (It has already launched the beta in Canada.) The Times says home delivery subscribers will get “full and free access” to the digital content; all others will see some content cordoned off behind a paywall. However, all readers will be able to get 20 articles per month at no charge. Readers reaching Times articles via Google will be limited to five articles per day, but those readers coming in via Facebook and Twitter will have free access.

The Times is offering three digital subscription options, NYTimes.com plus the smartphone app ($15 every four weeks), NYTimes.com plus the tablet app ($20 every four weeks), and “All Access” – NYTimes.com plus both apps ($35 every four weeks).

This new paywall is a very big deal for a number of reasons. The Times is the most read newspaper on the Web, with some 32 million visitors each month – and 85 percent of them are not subscribers. Unlike the single-price paid online subscription strategy of its competitor, The Wall Street Journal, the Times is adopting a metered approach, as did the Financial Times in 2002. (Though it should be pointed out that the Journal hasn’t yet solved the problem of free Google access to articles, which the Times addresses in its implementation.) Needless to say, this move will be watched closely by other newspaper publishers, and by content creators and aggregators as well.

So far, some critics seem to be having a field day with a paywall that took the Times fourteen months to develop. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM writes, “…it seems pretty clearly designed to protect the subscription numbers for the printed version of the Times,” because with a print subscription of any kind (even just Sunday), “everything digital comes along with it for nothing.” Ingram calls the Times plan “reactionary.”

Several observers noted that the Times may be attempting to plug up the “Google loophole,” but they debate why readers who reach the Times via Facebook and Twitter have free access to articles, while Google users have a metered restriction. MG Siegler, writing for TechCrunch, wonders if this is “the right bet.” He figures the reason the Times went with this approach is that social media visitors may be more tech savvy than those coming from Google, so they may find paying for content more objectionable. Siegler writes, “even if this move goes beyond the vocal users and into the mainstream population that might otherwise be willing to pay, at the very least, it will still mean less overall backlash.”

Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish (The Atlantic) thinks the folks at the Times “have gotten the balance just about right.” He says it seems that the new paywall “almost privileges links from blogs and social media against more direct access. Which makes it a gift to the blogosphere.”

Ken Doctor, writing for the Neiman Journalism Lab, doesn’t even see the paywall as a paywall. He calls it a “pay fence,” because, he says, “it is climbable and purposely porous.” His insightful article suggests the Times plan will have to pass seven specific tests in order to be deemed successful. Among those tests are: (1) Get at least one percent (300,000) of the 30 million or so freeloaders to pay for a digital subscription (2) Turn the “all digital access” pricing model into a big winner instead of an embarrassing disaster, and (3) “Match the journalism of the Times with a singular, surpassing everyday digital experience.”

I wrote about paywalls previously, suggesting that they may not ultimately be the best solution for newspaper publishers. I will say this about the Times plan, however, it may be over-designed, but it does have some qualities that at least acknowledge the reality of today’s digital world ( i.e., the variety of devices used to gain access to content and the unstoppable rise of social media). To even have a traditional newspaper publisher recognize these aspects is refreshing.

Mathew Ingram concludes that metering content won’t “save the Times. In order to really take advantage of the revolution that is underway in the content business, it needs to start thinking about what it does in a whole new way, and there are few signs of that happening any time soon.”

My take on it is a little different. The Times is anything but staid, and I would submit they have done some revolutionary things, at least for a traditional newspaper. Early on, their website used a two-tier model so that individuals had to sign up for full access. Admittedly, the organization may not have leveraged those qualified free subscribers as much as they could have, but I think the concept was good for pre-paywall days.

Now, the Times is throwing a lot of things against the online wall to see if they stick. They have a decent iPad app and they recently introduced News.me, a personalized news iPad app. They have launched “TimesLimited,” a Groupon-like service supporting its advertisers, and “GreatGetaways” to pitch travel deals. They also launched the “New York Times Knowledge Network” to offer online education courses and Webcasts. All of these may not work, but I give them credit for making the effort.

Let’s face it, these are difficult times for the Times, and every other newspaper. It remains to be seen if the new Times paywall will be the key to survival or the beginning of the end.

About Barry Silverstein

Barry Silverstein is a freelance writer/marketing consultant. In addition to writing for ReveNews, he is a contributing writer to Brandchannel.com, the world’s leading online branding forum. He is the author of three marketing books, The Breakaway Brand (co-author, McGraw-Hill, 2005), Business-to-Business Internet Marketing (Maximum Press, 2003) and Internet Marketing for Technology Companies (Maximum Press, 2003). Barry ran his own Internet and direct marketing agency for twenty years. You can find Barry on Twitter @bdsilv.

One Response to Times Paywall: Survival of the Fittest?

  1. Wayne Porter says:

    I think the Times will survive, but if they think they are protecting their print numbers I believe they are sorely mistaken. The shift has happened, and after using a Kindle for the first time, and loving it, it is only a matter of time.

    NYT and other newspapers will need to find other revenue streams or new ways to repackage what they have…first thing I would look at is data.