The New York Times Co.'s plan to build a content wall answers the wrong question.
Citing the need to add another revenue stream to its mix, the New York Times Co. announced sketchy plans today to erect a metered pay wall for its NYTimes.com site by the beginning of 2011.
According to a Times article, print edition subscribers will still enjoy free access to the site, and nonsubscribers will be invited to nosh on the site until they exceed their free monthly limit of articles, at which point they will be dunned for a monthly, unlimited subscription. The company won't say how many free articles nonsubscribers will get to read before being asked to pay and how they'd be asked to pay. (Romenesko published the letter from Times Co. executives to the staff.)
I can't criticize the Times Co. plan because there is no plan to criticize. If they can get a bazillion people to pay for monthly access, more power to them. But unless the company has some ace up their sleeve, the strategy seems 1) too easy for freeloaders to game their way around it and 2) a waste of the gargantuan audience they've attracted.
If the NYTimes.com pay wall rises whenever a nonsubscriber reaches his free allotment of articles per month, what's to prevent the nonsubscriber from creating another free account with a different e-mail address and continuing to read? The NYTimes.com could drop a tracking cookie onto every computer to prevent multiple accounts, but readers could flush cookies from their browsers. Alternatively, one industrious programmer has gotten around the FT.com pay wall, which limits readers to one free article a month, by writing a "cookie fixer" that allows unlimited access to the site.
Perhaps NYTimes.com servers will be trained to sniff out the unique ID assigned to every Internet browser and stop those spongers in their tracks. But what's to prevent users from breeching this wall by installing several different browsers on their computers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, Chrome, etc.), each of which will have its own unique ID to foil the NYTimes.com sniffing and quadruple their monthly free ration of articles?
The NYTimes.com could also require all users to install special browser plug-ins or other software to access the site. How many deadbeats would really go to all the trouble of uninstalling and reinstalling the software just to read a few more stories each month? Probably not that many. But all it would take is one person to hack his way around the NYTimes.com software with a bit of counterprogramming to open a gap in the wall. I don't think the NYTimes.com wants to get into a technological arms race with its readers. And for privacy reasons, I don't think the NYTimes.com wants to spend a lot of time policing its users.
One way to lock down sites is by issuing RSA authenticators to sanctioned users, as many banks do. But that would be a very expensive solution. Just imagine the headache of dealing with customers who had lost or misplaced their authenticators, or couldn't figure out how to use them.
Obviously, every hurdle a Web site erects deters some users, so whatever concertina wire and broken glass a site affixes to the top of its pay wall will help reduce unauthorized browsing. But is deterring readers in the New York Times Co.'s best interest? Newspaper publishers have traditionally encouraged free riders. Every newspaper or magazine rate sheet I've ever seen crows to advertisers about the phenomenal pass-along rate of their paid circulation. One paying customer, they'll boast, equals three or four or even five readers! Now comes the Web era and the publishers suddenly want to exile "pass-along" readers?
My colleague Michael Newman likes to dispel the idea that there is a newspaper crisis by pointing out that—thanks to the Web—more people read more newspaper stories than ever before. The only crisis he recognizes is an advertising crisis. The immense audiences news sites on the Web attract would stagger newspaper publishers from earlier eras. Free readers aren't a problem! They're an asset! They're an opportunity!
Good luck to the New York Times Co. on policing its wall. But if I were Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., I'd be spending more time improving Web advertising to capitalize on the 40 million unique users his corporation-wide sites reach each month.