So, the plans for the New York Times paywall are out. I said when they were first mooted that they looked to be thinking along the right lines in allowing people to view content for free if they came via social media – but I feared that that innovation would be lost along the way.
It’s enormously encouraging to see that it hasn’t.
Why is it encouraging? For two main reasons: firstly, it recognises the importance of distribution in online publishing. If you erect an arbitrary paywall, many people will not bother to link to you because they don’t want to frustrate their friends. That not only hurts your social media traffic, it hurts your search engine ranking.
Variety magazine suffered from this so much recently, it seems, that they launched a blog outside of their paywall with an email begging other sites to link to it.
Secondly, it recognises that they need to balance quality with quantity. Online advertising has yet to settle into any sort of pattern, but metrics of engagement are rising in importance, and one of those metrics is how much traffic comes from recommendations, i.e. social media.
Another metric is, of course, how loyal a user is, how many articles they read, and how much you know about them. The subscription options will allow the NYT to gather that information too – without sacrificing the huge numbers that most advertisers will be looking for.
Curiously, the chairman of The New York Times Company is quoted as saying “A few years ago it was almost an article of faith that people would not pay for the content they accessed via the Web.”
But I don’t think they are paying just for the content. I think this system recognises that they are paying for convenience (you pay more to get the content across web, mobile and iPad than you do to get the same content on fewer platforms – and you could get all the content for free if you can bother to go through Bing), and reliability (not hitting a wall when you want to read the 21st article of the month).
In many ways it is no different to traditional subscriptions: it is the difference between paying for regular deliveries of the whole paper package, and picking up a newspaper that someone has left on the bus or the staff canteen, or borrowing one from a friend, for free.
In the past we accounted for those ‘freeloaders’ and ‘parasites’ – as we call them online – by adjusting our readership figures to reflect that every copy bought was read by 4 people. We didn’t lock down the newspapers and tell subscribers what they could do with them.
And so here we are, with the most mature, intelligent, and commercially sensible paywall model yet.
But we still have no idea if it will work…
UPDATE: Aside from the technical implementation I think Dave Winer has a point about the content proposition