New York Times paywall: Designed to drive you insane!

Media criticism.
March 17 2011 7:02 PM

Don't Piss on the New York Times Paywall

At least not yet.

The New York Times building. Click image to expand.
The New York Times building*

How long have I been throwing my dollar wads over the New York Times paywall? Oh, since about 1985. Measured in 2011 money, I've probably dropped between $17,000 and $18,000 on the newsprint version of the paper. Just think, if only I had used that money to purchase Apple stock on the installment plan I'd be rich today instead of a wage slave.

So, naturally, I feel grouchy about my Times subscription every time it comes to mind, which is monthly, when the bill arrives. So it's only natural that today's announcement by the Times that its long-awaited paywall will rise on March 28 is making me feel worse. Oh, I don't resent the Times wanting to maximize its return on its investment. Lord knows it should have handled its money better, if only to have kept it from the ignominy of begging Carlos Slim for a bailout a couple of years ago.

But the erecting of the new paywall has reopened the running debate in my head. Have I been a sucker for subscribing to the Times all these years? I'm sure that an economist could explain to me why, whenever I think about having spent $18,000 on the Times, I want to kill myself, but that the actual monthly payment of the $57.78 bill only makes me grumble. I shrug when I get that bill and say, well, I like the obits and the books coverage, Joe Nocera is terrific even if he's making the mistake of joining the op-ed page blowfish, I live for Dwight Garner, the Sunday autos page is fun sometimes, the wife likes the magazine, and whenever the world is going straight to hell, as it has been for the past decade, that section where they put the news—is it called the A section?—comes in handy. Plus, the bogus trend factory that the Times runs keeps me in fresh Press Box copy and thus financially solvent.

Oh, I publicly canceled my Times subscription a couple of years ago but found myself resubscribing because I love the smell of newsprint in the morning, but the paywall system has me revisiting the whole idea of shelling out what feels like a tithe. The mix-and-match of Times subscription options detailed in today's "Digital Subscriptions and Premium Products" FAQ doesn't make it easy to decide which way to pay for or not pay for the Times. It makes the privacy notices that come with credit cards read like a Dick and Jane primer. They're going to have to reassign Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane from his editorial duties to clean up the consumer relations mess that will be left behind! Should I stick with my pricey Times print subscription, which will give me access to NYTimes.com, or should I try to save money with a purely digital subscription? But which one? There are three of them! Or should I read my 20 free articles a month and then mooch what I can from Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Bing? What if I want the crossword? If I want to read a digital subscription on both my iPhone and my iPad I'll have to pay twice? I'll bet this confusion is giving Señor Slim headaches, too, and he's the richest man in the world.

The paywall has given BoingBoing's congenital paywall-hater Cory Doctorow a heart attack. "No one will be able to figure out how it works," he bellows of the new quota system. Then he goes into overdrive imagining the way readers will sneak over the paywall. They'll turn off cookies. When the Times plants secret permacookies and uses third-party beacons, someone out there will release a "browser redirection service that pipes links to nytimes.com through auto-generated tweets, creating valid Twitter referrers to Times stories that aren't blocked by the paywall" or something even more imaginative. Doctorow worries also, as I do, about the paywall making it harder to link to the Times—or at least having any confidence that people will have enough quota-clicks left to read the Times pieces we link to in our stories.

Doctorow's fury is matched by Felix Salmon's bafflement. The Reuters blogger takes a shot at explaining the paywall's pricing but quickly gives up. "The message being sent here is weird," he wrote. "The pricing structure is also a strong disincentive to use the iPad app at all" and "the paywall won't even cover its own development costs for a good two years."

"I just can't see how this move makes any kind of financial sense for the NYT. The upside is limited; the downside is that it ceases to be the paper of record for the world. Who would take that bet?" he concludes.

Of course we wouldn't be having this conversation if we hadn't been spoiled for the last 15 years with unlimited free links to Times stories (I'm deliberately blocking out the TimesSelect experiment). I predict major turmoil in the coming weeks as the Times invades Canada with the beta version of its paywall and then brings it to the States. Everyone will be miserable, everyone will be yelling at the Times, its writers will be bellyaching, and then, I hope, the paper will quickly figure out simpler pricing so I won't have to get out my calculator to figure out which orifice I'm getting screwed in.

Nobody disputes the assertion that the Times cannot survive without increasing its revenues. Because I need the Times in my life—to read and to bitch about—I have no problem with the paper ejecting as many free-riders as necessary and soaking as many of the habituated (you're looking at one) to make the paper prosper. So as we pick the mortar from the paywall and heave the loose bricks over the top at the Times noggins, keep this in mind: The pricing scheme and process by which the paper evicts its millions of squatters doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to increase revenues appreciably. If it does that, I'll be happy to call it a success.

***

Remember the Slate paywall? Here's Michael Kinsley's May 24, 1998, pitch to get you to pay and his Feb. 14, 1999, dismantling of the wall. Send your walled thoughts to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and read my Twitter feed while it's still free. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slateruns a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word paywall in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Correction, March 18, 2011: This article originally included a photograph of the New York Times' previous office building with a caption identifying it as the current offices. ( Return to top.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Dec. 22 2014 3:01 PM Slate Voice: “Santa Should Not Be a White Man Anymore” Aisha Harris reads her piece on giving St. Nick a makeover.