Can the NY Times grab the best of both paywall worlds?

Yesterday’s post about whether people will continue to share links with their friends if content is behind a paywall was appositely timed, as it turns out: the two new websites for The Times and The Sunday Times are now live. To access any further than the front page, you must register (and, from next month, pay).

Visually the sites look good, despite the occasional teething trouble: I’ve been assured by the Times’ assistant editor, @TomWhitwell, that the eye-crunchingly tight leading of the body copy is being addressed. But neither the visual look, nor such other ‘enhancements’ such as requiring all commenters to post under their real names, will get round the problem of people being unwilling to share links with their friends if that means asking their friends to pay.

After I wrote yesterday’s post, the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones (@BBCRoryCJ/@ruskin147) wrote his own blog post making some similar points, including reference to both Caitlin Moran’s Lady Gaga interview and the twitterings of political columnist Daniel Finkelstein.

Over in the US, the New York Times has, in the past, experimented with putting its OpEd coverage behind an all-or-nothing paywall. The TimesSelect program, as it was called, was far from a financial success, but also faced opposition from its contributors, who found themselves being shut out of a wider conversation. Those factors helped lead to a dismantling of the paywall, and OpEd coverage being returned to the open web.

According to Cellan-Jones, Finkelstein is not worried about that side of things:

I asked Danny Finkelstein whether it bothered him that from now on none of his journalism would “go viral”, with the risk that he’d be left invisible on the sidelines as the online debate raged through news sites without paywalls. “No,” he insisted,”I want my employer to be paid for my intellectual property.”

The NYT will shortly embark on a paywall system once again, but one that seeks to acknowledge the value in allowing its readers to engage with content through their social media links. At All Things Digital, Peter Kafka writes:

…the Times is building a “metered model” where visitors to the site can read a certain number of articles per month for free. That’s designed to keep attracting the casual, drive-by readers that make a up a large chunk of most sites’ traffic. Even better: Bloggy links to the site won’t count against readers’ limits.

So says Times spokeswoman Stacy Green, in response to an email query I sent her yesterday:

Once the pay model is implemented next year, the majority of our readers will be unaffected when using the site and will continue to have the same experience they have always had. Readers will only be prompted to pay after reaching a certain reading limit. The pay model will be designed so readers that are referred from third party sites such as blogs will be able to access that content without hitting their limit, enabling to continue being a part of the open web. We have not yet set the reading limit and we will communicate that once we have made the decision.

It seems to me that, if reader payments are ever going to work on the web, the New York Times’ approach is more likely to succeed than the [London] Times’ is. Given the animosity between Rupert Murdoch and the Sulzberger family, who own the NYT, there’d be an extra level of irony available if that did turn out to be the case.

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.