Commentary

The New York Times' New Paywall Uses Social As A Sampling Tool

I was going to write this column about SXSW, but I have to say -- not having gone, of course -- I'm unimpressed. If the best innovation at the show is group text messaging, then I'm going to pull out my old "clamshell" phone from the year 2000 and make an od-fashioned phone call to celebrate. 

For me, the ability to group-text with a select group of friends sounds like one of those things that should have been thought of long ago - and to some extent has been, in things like conference calls, email discussion threads, and, of course, chat rooms. Is this truly an innovation, or just a slight tweak to existing technologies? 

Now that I've gotten that rant out of the way, our topic today is The New York Times' just-announced digital subscription policy, because now we finally know how at least one great media property will try to eat its cake and have it too when it comes to monetizing content while at the same time making it shareable.

As a blogger, and a daily reader of the Times either online or in print, this is a front- and-center concern. But getting beyond the personal, it also speaks to the difficult choices media companies must make: do they put up a paywall and finally derive revenue from their visitors, or, do they continue to jump, both feet first, into the rampant content-sharing through social media that can build traffic, and, therefore, ad revenue?

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In a letter posted on its site today by publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., here's what the paper-of-record decided:

"Readers who come to Times articles through links from search, blogs and social media like Facebook and Twitter will be able to read those articles, even if they have reached their monthly reading limit. For some search engines, users will have a daily limit of free links to Times articles."

In other words, bloggers and other frequent sharers of content, you should feel free to share the Times' links to your hearts' content, as you do now. As for the rest of you, the paywall kicks in only when you've gone to the site twenty times and connected to actual stories -- as opposed to scanning the front page and section front pages, which will always be free. The cost is a reasonable $15/month. Oh, and if you subscribe to the dead-tree version of the paper, all New York Times digital content, no matter what platform you receive it on, is free.

There is more fine print to do with the app world, but the Times' paywall policies I've outlined above say two things:

1.     The paywall will apply to only a tiny fraction of people who visit the Times' site.

2.     In a time when Facebook and Twitter are key distribution networks for spreading content, the Times has to make it clear that the enterprising content-sharer can continue to put it in the mix. Thus, social becomes not just a distribution channel, but a promotional one. The vast majority of those who click on Times links shared by others won't be print subscribers, but the market the paper wants to reach with its digital subscription plan. Making sure that clicking on shared Times links is an unfettered experience, gives it greater exposure. Think of it as ensuring the continuation of social as a sampling tool. 

Make no mistake: as I said in point #1 above, there should be no expectation that people will subscribe en masse to digital versions -- be they Web-based, or on other platforms, such as the iPad. As paywalls go, this one isn't very high. <

Still, as much of the media world, especially in digital newspapers and magazines, will watch the Times closely and probably follow its lead, its policy is encouraging. When you link to media sites as often as I do, the thought of a tamped-down Web is chilling. You don't want to constantly think about whether the people who stop by and read your blog will be able to access what you're linking to. On the other hand, we need those same sites that we favor to make money. The Times' paywall strategy, I hope, is a step in that direction.

3 comments about "The New York Times' New Paywall Uses Social As A Sampling Tool".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, March 17, 2011 at 5:44 p.m.

    Finally, the NYT will learn what most people think their product is really worth, relative to the cornucopia of alternatives. And i don't think they'll like the answer.

  2. Steve Sarner from Tagged, March 17, 2011 at 6 p.m.

    Cathy - as you mention....

    " the ability to group-text with a select group of friends sounds like one of those things that should have been thought of long ago - and to some extent has been, in things like conference calls, email discussion threads, and, of course, chat rooms".

    That is true and to your point one could argue there is no need for Facebook either. What Beluga has done as improved upon the group text to such an extent that it was very impressive and frankly already felt like I was using a FB product - even though they were just recently acquired.

    There was WAY more at SX as well - it's really almost too much to digest.

  3. Steve Schildwachter from Restaurant.com, March 21, 2011 at 11:45 a.m.

    Great analysis, Catharine -- the hypothesis needs to be proven, but it's a smart one: Social Media is a smart, consumer-driven, word-of-mouth distribution system that replaces the paperboy.

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