Everybody’s Freaking Out About the Times Pay Wall

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Photo: David Sundberg/Esto

The backlash to the New York Times' pay-wall plan, explained today, was about as predictable as the creation of the wall itself. The paper may as well have trumpeted it alongside their initial announcement a year ago: "In early 2011, we will be unveiling our plans for a metered pay wall, and the Internet will hate it!" Arthur Sulzberger could have cried. "No, seriously! Even if we make it really cheap and straightforward, the Internet will shriek and moan and gnash its teeth. It won't even help if we get Steve Jobs involved!" And he would have been right, because the Internet is a spoiled, greedy brat. Why would the Internet, which is used to getting content for free from one of the greatest news sites in the world without even asking, want to react positively to any sort of structure or cost? Like a child in the sandbox having a toy taken away, it is disincentivized to react with generosity or maturity. Good thing for the Times, most of its readers are not the wilding geeks who speak for the Internet, but rather average news consumers who may actually have a sense of ... [shudder] loyalty.

From what we've seen, there have been only a few positive reactions to the pay wall's structure. (In brief: You can pay $15 a month for digital and smartphone access, $20 a month for digital and iPad access, and $35 for the whole bundle. If you subscribe to any portion of the paper, digital and device access is free. And access is also free online for up to twenty articles per month, or for articles linked from blogs or social media. Google will give you access to five free stories a day before you hit the wall. It's all detailed in the Times' FAQ.) Here are the optimists:

Andrew Sullivan thinks that the window for blogs and social media is key to the plan's success. "What makes this exception even more interesting is that, if I read it correctly, it almost privileges links from blogs and social media against more direct access. Which makes it a gift to the blogosphere," he writes. "Anyway, that's my first take: and it's one of great relief. We all want to keep the NYT in business (well, almost all of us). But we also don't want to see it disappear behind some Great NewsCorp-Style Paywall. It looks to me as if they have gotten the balance just about right." [Atlantic]

Steve Brill, whose Journalism Online helps other papers with their own metered pay walls, thinks this plan "makes a lot of sense." "As Arthur rightly emphasizes, this will sustain the Times business model over the long term by eliminating the completely free alternative to its print product, while drawing in a global audience of now-paying digital readers," he tells Neiman Journalism Lab. "All in all, a smart, well-thought-out plan." [NeimanLab]

And now for the bad:

Jeff Bercovici finds the digital subscription rates to be "cheap relative to print," and understands why subscribers to the $30ish "Weekender" edition are getting a steal — print ads in those lush sections are expensive, and the Times has reason to make that the most attractive option for readers. "I’ll be amazed if someone doesn’t attempt to game this by setting up a 'New York Times Indexed' Twitter feed with links to every story," he jokes. "And I’ll be even more amazed if the Times’s legal department doesn’t already have its cease and desist letter drafted." [Forbes]

Felix Salmon doesn't think the pay wall is cheap or porous, or even simple. "$15 per four-week period gives you access to the website and also its smartphone app, while $20 gives you access to the website also its iPad app. But if you want to read the NYT on both your smartphone and your iPad, you’ll need to buy both digital subscriptions separately, and pay an eye-popping $35 every four weeks," he says, changing our definition of what you may have thought "eye-popping" means. (People who spend money on frivolous items like iPads don't get seven lattes at Starbucks in a month?) "The message being sent here is weird: that access to the website is worth nothing. Mathematically, if A+B=$15, A+C=$20, and A+B+C=$35, then A=$0." [Reuters]

• BoingBoing's Corey Doctorow proclaims, simply, "This won't work." For several reasons, starting with the fact that nobody will be able to figure out how many articles they've read. (Hint, Corey: The Times will keep track for you.) He assumes people will be enraged and confused when they hit the pay wall. "And this means that lots of people are going to greet the NYT paywall with eye-rolling and frustration," he writes. "This is exactly the wrong frame of mind to be in when confronted with a signup page." This attitude will encourage pay-wall-avoiding strategies across the web, which is most of his argument against it. At least he admits he "was going to hate this paywall no matter what the NYT did." [BoingBoing]

Darrell Etherington thinks that the pricing problematically shoos away app users. "Light to moderate app users faced with the choice of becoming a digital subscriber or going back strictly to the web with its broader access, I think most will choose the latter, which could hurt the Times’ ability to attract lucrative advertising deals to the apps." [Gigaom]

Steve Buttry thinks "the Times approach is ridiculous on multiple levels." Pointing to the notorious failure of the "Times Select" model from a few years ago, he suspects not nearly enough people will buy into the new plan. "This can’t possibly generate significant revenue ... This will be a trickle of revenue, not worth the time they spent developing the plan," he grouses. "This punishes their most loyal readers for their loyalty: If you really like us and keep on coming back, we’ll make you pay. The hit-and-run Times readers can read for free without ever being bothered. What the hell kind of business model is that?" [NeimanLab]