Thoughts on the N.Y. Times’ modified limited paywall

Earlier today, Lois Beckett of the Nieman Journalism Lab asked me and a number of other media observers to write brief commentaries on the New York Times’ modified limited paywall, which was announced this morning. She got some interesting responses, ranging from Steve Buttry (“ridiculous”) to Amy Webb (“a wise move”). Here’s what I wrote:

The New York Times is taking a smart and nuanced approach. Times executives have struck an interesting balance between charging heavy users for access while remaining part of the free online conversation that’s become such an important part of the media ecosystem. I have no idea whether a limit of 20 free articles a month is too little, too much or just right, but I assume they’ll adjust in response to what the market tells them.

I was also pleased to see that print subscribers, including Sunday-only customers (like our family), will have free access to most of the Times’ online platforms. The Sunday paper remains a vital source of revenue for the Times, and it makes sense for Arthur Sulzberger, Janet Robinson and company to do whatever they can to preserve that money machine.

That said, the Times will no longer be able to make excuses for glitchy software and access problems. I’m reasonably happy with the Times iPhone app, but my wife reads the Times on her iPad, and it’s buggy. You can get away with that when it’s free. But once you put a price tag on your product, you’ve got to guarantee that it works — and be responsive to consumer complaints when it doesn’t. That’s especially true given that the Times is charging more for electronic access than many had predicted.

The news business may be watching this very closely to see what lessons can be drawn, but I’m not sure that there will be many, because the Times is such a unique product. For many people, the Times may be the one “newspaper” for which they’re willing to pay to read online. Rather than paving the way for other newspapers, the Times’ paywall may instead lead to a further stratification of the news business, as executives at other papers find themselves unable to emulate the Times’ success in persuading customers to pay for electronic access.

The announcement was pretty much along the lines of what the Times said was coming months ago, though the fees for non-print subscribers ($15 to $35 every four weeks depending on your platforms) are higher than some had expected. There are also all kinds of exceptions regarding Twitter and Facebook access, top news on smartphones and the like.

The plan is very different from one that will be unveiled later this year by a sister Times Co. property, the Boston Globe, which announced last fall that it would divide its Web offerings into a free Boston.com (filled mostly with content that doesn’t appear in the Globe) and a paid BostonGlobe.com.

Last October, I interviewed Globe publisher Chris Mayer about his paywall plans.

11 thoughts on “Thoughts on the N.Y. Times’ modified limited paywall

  1. Bud Clark

    Dan, I pay for the Times Reader app, it seems from what I’ve read that I’m shut out. Does that look true to you, and if so, does that make sense?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Bud: The answer is probably somewhere in the FAQ they put up. That said, as several others at Nieman pointed out, the plan is needlessly complicated.

  2. Bud Clark

    Thanks Dan, it’s borderline high but I’ll most likely sign up for the deal you noted. I consume NYT through three of those 4 methods. As you noted, I will expect better service and performance. For example, their iPad app, which I generally like, was crashing repeatedly last week while loading ads. That seems to have abated this week but I’m holding my breath every time a full-page ad loads over a story I’ve selected, probably not the user experience they want for their paying customers.

    P.S. I’m a Globe subscriber so I’m hoping for a Globe iPad version along the lines of the NYT app.

  3. Michael Pahre

    Is it a pure coincidence that on the same day as the NYT announcement their website has suddenly become painfully slower to view in a web browser? Now when I follow a link to an article (external or internal links in their website) the browser window hangs for 20 seconds or so…

  4. Matt Kelly

    Somebody please start tracking web traffic to the NYT site on a daily basis, and then publish a chart of traffic over one-month periods– so we can all see the plunge in traffic that will happen around mid-month, as people start hitting the timed paywall and go elsewhere.

  5. Laurence Kranich

    I wish there were some kind of middle ground between “you can read one story a day” and “you must pay for the whole paper for the entire month as if you spend an hour a day reading everything here.”

    Or as an alternative, I’d pay for a consortium of newspapers that allowed you access to a large number of paywalls for one reasonable price.

    If every newspaper adopted the Times model, I’d have to go back to the pre-internet model of paying for 2 or 3 papers by subscription. Then I’d read them thoroughly and exclusively because that’s all I could afford. But that doesn’t seem to be the best way to make Internet journalism pay.

  6. Bill Duncliffe

    Interestingly, their pricing model doesn’t seem to offer any incentive for signing up for a full year.

  7. tobe berkovitz

    Here’s a unique thought, let the marketplace decide. Plenty of info options out there folks. Most are free, a few you pay for. The NYT has managed the worst of both worlds. It is confusing. They don’t have the confidence to go all pay or the bottom line to keep providing their content for free.

  8. I only use the NYTimes AP online page — linked through their front page online. I wonder how that will work once the new system kicks in. Will I have the same 20 page/mo free look, when I click on an AP headline to take a better look at the story behind it?

    If I run into problems getting to see the stories I am interested in, I’ll just go to Google News and seek them there.

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