For years, newspapers have struggled to cope with the challenges of the Internet age: declining print circulations, the evaporation of the market for personal ads, and advertisers’ gradual shift from print to online media. But that may be about to change, because The New York Times has finally found a solution to the newspaper industry’s troubles: preying on the guilt and ignorance of loyal readers.
On Monday, The Times unveiled its new online pay wall. Making online readers pay for content isn’t a new concept — it’s an idea that dates back to the founding of the first newspaper sites. But newspaper executives have long looked at pay walls as revenue losers, because they usually don’t generate enough revenue to offset the ad revenue papers lose by preventing non-subscribers from accessing their sites.
But The Times’s pay wall won’t drive away readers, because it’s not really a pay wall. It’s more like a pretend pay wall. Here’s how it works: non-subscribers can view up to 20 articles a month for free. They can also — free of charge — view up to 25 articles a day that they find through search engines and an unlimited number of articles that they find via blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. In addition, non-subscribers can access The Times’s home page and the landing pages for all of the paper’s different sections — Sports, Politics, Business, etc. — an unlimited number of times.
This system creates at least five easy ways for non-subscribers to get around the pay wall:
1.) Non-subscribers can switch browsers after they max out their monthly allotment of free articles. For instance, I have three browsers — Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Internet Explorer — which means that I can access 60 articles a month for free without the aid of search engines, blogs or social media.
2.) Non-subscribers can clear their browser caches every time they max out on their monthly allotment of free articles. This strategy will allow non-subscribers to read an unlimited number of articles.
3.) Non-subscribers can simply remove “?gwh=numbers” from an article’s URL and continue reading as if they’re subscribers.
4.) Non-subscribers can browse The Times’s home page and landing pages until they find an interesting article, and then type the name of that article into a search engine. They won’t have to worry about the pay wall unless they read more than 25 Times articles per day.
5.) Thanks to the social media loophole, non-subscribers can follow Twitter feeds that link to every article that The New York Times publishes.
Considering that The Times invested $40 million in the pay wall’s design, it’s hard to believe that these loopholes aren’t there for a reason. I suspect that the paper’s executives think they can maximize revenue by charging different segments of their readership different prices — an approach that economists call “price discrimination.”
The Times’s pay wall targets two groups: readers who feel guilty about consuming free journalism and readers who don’t realize how easy it is to bypass the pay wall. This is a clever strategy. If just 1 million of the site’s 30 million monthly unique visitors sign up for the $15-a-month, computer-only subscription fee, the paper will rake in $180 million a year from the pay wall — enough to keep the paper in the black. And if some of those readers subscribe to the $35-a-month premium plan, The New York Times will be in really good shape — at least until word gets out that the pay wall isn’t real.
The other possibility is that The Times’s management is so incompetent that they just wasted $40 million on a horribly flawed pay wall system. If that’s the case, The New York Times is in serious trouble.
Peter Tucci is an editor for The Daily Caller.