The New York Times, pay walls, and free riders: The paper should mellow out about folks who read but don't pay.

The New York Times, pay walls, and free riders: The paper should mellow out about folks who read but…

The New York Times, pay walls, and free riders: The paper should mellow out about folks who read but…

Media criticism.
March 23 2011 6:52 PM

The Times' Free-Rider Problem Is Not a Problem

Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. to the contrary, it's good for the NYTimes.com that readers will game its pay wall.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

New York Times Co. Chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. shot his mouth off at a morning roundtable discussion at the Paley Center for Media this morning according to Forbes reporter Jeff Bercovici. Speaking on whether the New York Times pay wall, scheduled to rise March 28, is unbreachable, Sulzberger had this to say.

"Can people go around the system?" Sulzberger asked rhetorically. "The answer is yes, just as if you run down Sixth Avenue right now and you pass a newsstand and you grab a newspaper and keep running, you can read the Times for free."

So Sulzberger equates the nonpaying reader who opens a single article after reaching the 20-article pay-wall limit with a thief. In doing so, Sulzberger reinforces his reputation as a dunce—and then enhances it with this analysis:

Is [jumping over the pay wall] going to be done by the kind of people who value the quality of the New York Times reporting and opinion and analysis? No. … I don't think so. It'll be mostly high-school kids and people who are out of work.

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Sulzberger won't make many new friends by calling some of his most devoted readers thieves, adolescents, and jobless. And kissing off the whole lot as folks who can't possibly value quality journalism isn't likely to win the Times many new paying customers, either. The high-school students Sulzberger so disparages will soon have enough money to afford a Times subscription. Does he really think it's smart to alienate them with a cheap, degrading shot? And that unemployed guy Sulzberger knocks? He might end up getting a job and start buying the paper on the newsstand. As for the thief, hell, he might rob a bank and decide to pay for a year's subscription in advance—and buy his mum one for Christmas. Sulzberger will live to regret his trash talking.

I'm as sympathetic as a New York Times Co. stockholder to the Times' efforts to wring more revenue out of the paper to sustain its journalism. The pay wall doesn't bother me at all—it's the Ochs-Sulzberger family's Times, not mine. But neither am I troubled by the prospect of readers gaming the Internet for free Times articles, and I don't see why the thought of freeloaders has brought out the worst in Sulzberger.

Until now, NYTimes.com has done nothing but brag about its 31.4 million unique visitors, even though only a fraction of them are paying customers. Nudge the Times,and it will boast about how these unique visitors spend an average of 30 minutes a month on the site. Thanks to these millions of deadbeats, the Times has never been a more influential and well-read news brand.

Newspapers have always prized the free riders—shall we call them "coasters"?—who read copies they didn't personally purchase. The Times, like other newspapers,keeps count of these readers and shakes those figures in front of the eyes of potential advertisers. The Times'Sunday print edition has a circulation of 1.35 million but has 4 million readers, according to the numbers given to me by the company. The weekday edition has a circulation of about 880,000 and about 2.4 million readers. Whether those ancillary readers are high-schoolers, unemployed, or thieves, the newspaper has come to love all of them, as well it should.

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The paper still has a little bit of love for free riders. College professors who require students to read the print edition of the Times as part of their courses qualify for complimentary Monday-through-Friday subscriptions. College students get a substantial discount to the print edition, which is all well and good, but if hitching a lift on the backs of your students isn't skeezy free-riding, I don't know what is.

But back to Sulzberger's stupid comments. His analogy of a stolen Times newspaper and an extra, unpaid NYTimes.compage view doesn't hold up. The thief who makes off with a paper copy breaks the law and sticks the newsstand with the loss. A Web reader who deletes cookies or similarly games the system breaks no law, and the cost to the Times is so tiny as to be infinitesimal. By consuming an extra free page, the online freeloader does not prevent a paying reader from viewing it. 

Not to get all Jeff Jarvis on you, but instead of deriding his herd of free riders, why doesn't Sulzberger celebrate them and seduce them into paying or otherwise deputize them to help lift Times revenues? These dedicated free riders, who will soon be loitering around the NYTimes.com, are New York Times salesmen. The links they scatter on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter are a social currency a smart businessman could ultimately convert into real currency.

The more people who read the Times, the more people who will want to read the Times, right? I read the Times, in part, to discuss it with others. Before the Web, I was a lonely Times reader. But ever since NYTimes.com launched and tens of millions of Americans started reading it, I haven't suffered for conversation about my favorite (and least favorite) Times columns and stories.

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Instead of regarding the gate crashers with resentment or hostility, Sulzberger should toss them a smidgen of thanks. This, I believe, is the attitude about free riders at the WSJ.com and the FT.com. Both have long been paid sites, but both allow some free access, which gives their publications added influence and reach, not to mention social currency. (The FT.com provides Slate withseveral stories from its weekend edition, which we publish for free.) 

Perhaps Sulzberger would have a little more cultural affinity for the Times-lovers he's slandered if he loosened up and stopped thinking of them as free riders and started thinking of them as easy riders. And maybe he didn't really mean it. According to Bercovici, after he slagged high-schoolers and the jobless, he quipped, "I can't believe I just said that."

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Do you WSJ.com and FT.com subscribers get annoyed when you learn that other readers have scaled those walls for free? Send your complaints to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Freeload on my Twitter feed all you want. (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.)

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