Online Journalism's Golden Age
Sometimes a Berlin Wall is better than a porous border.

The American Spectator, June 2011

The New York Times erected its long-awaited online paywall in late March. In theory, that means you can no longer read the Times online without paying a subscription fee of $195 to $455 a year.

But like America's southern border, the Times's wall is porous. "Visitors get 20 free articles . . . each calendar month on," the site explained. "In addition," a report noted, "non-subscribers will have access to articles found through search (limited to five per day from major search engines), blogs and social networks like Facebook and Twitter, even if they have exceeded their 20-article reading limit."

Mashable added: "The Times confirmed a report that it had dropped its case against @freeNYTimes, a Twitter feed designed to help readers circumvent the forthcoming paywall." The Times says it objected to the site's use of its logo, which has been removed.

Techies would have an even easier time penetrating the paywall. The Nieman Journalism Lab reported that it "can be defeated through four lines of Javascript," and that a "Canadian coder" had made available a tool to do just that-one so simple "it barely even qualifies as a hack."

The week of the paywall's introduction, reported that its readers had voted the plan the week's "dumbest thing on Wall Street," although the Times's offices are actually on Eighth Avenue. But Times publisher Pinch Sulzberger was untroubled, according to TheStreet:

"Can people go around the system? The answer is yes. There are going to be ways," Sulzberger said at an appearance at the Paley Center for Media. "Just as if you run down Sixth Avenue right now and you pass a newsstand and grab the paper and keep running you can actually get the Times free." Oh, so we're not savvy Web users, we're all thieves.

"Is it going to be done by the kind of people who value the quality of the New York Times reporting and opinion and analysis? No," he continued. "I don't think so. It'll be mostly high-school kids and people who are out of work."

Just as illegal immigrants take jobs Americans won't do, Times paywall-jumpers take articles Americans won't read. And like immigration reformers, the Times had an amnesty plan, as the Wall Street Journal reported (in an article available online only to paid subscribers):

New York Times Co.'s efforts to charge readers to read online articles will get an early boost from one advertiser-Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln brand.

Lincoln, an existing advertiser with the New York Times, has targeted 200,000 heavy readers of the newspaper's website with an offer to sponsor their digital subscription for 2011.

Lincoln won't pay the actual subscription costs for those taking part, but the car maker will increase its online ad spending with the publisher. Details of the arrangement weren't disclosed. Lincoln will make an online pitch for the free Times access to targeted customers through emails.

Lincoln and the Times expected some 100,000 subscribers to sign up for the nine-month freebie, whose retail value is approximately $150 a subscriber, or $15 million in total. (Disclosure: I received the Lincoln invitation by e-mail, immediately signed up for it, and subsequently got irritated that for days, redundant solicitations for the offer showed up each time I visited the Times website.)

On April 16, three weeks after the paywall went up, Greg Pollowitz of National Review reported he had found still more ways of defeating it:

First I discovered that you can simply switch browsers, i.e. from Firefox to IE, and the Times gives you another 20 articles to read. After I ran out of browsers, I just deleted my cookies and that seemed to reset the Times's article counter. . . .

And they want me to pay to read their content? Yeah, right.

P.S. Remember, the same people at NYT HQ who signed off on the paywall plan probably think Sarah Palin is stupid.

If the Times's new paywall is too easily breached, perhaps that is because the paper's executives overlearned the lesson of their last attempt at charging for online access. TimesSelect, which began September 19, 2005, charged $49.95 a year for access to the Times's opinion columnists, while leaving news stories, editorials, and outside op-ed pieces free.

The TimesSelect barrier was as impenetrable as the Berlin Wall. There was no monthly ration of free columns, no exemption for search-engine or Twitter links (did Twitter even exist then?), no Lincolnesque amnesty program. The Times even forbade other newspapers from posting columns online unless they also required payment to read them.

Like the Berlin Wall, this had the effect of keeping the Times's columnists inside. The result was a Golden Age of online journalism, as bloggers and others ignored Paul Krugman's vicious rants, Maureen Dowd's bitter fluff, Thomas Friedman's maladroit metaphors, and so forth.

I would gladly have shelled out $49.95 per annum to maintain this state of affairs--but perversely, that would have exposed me to the material I'd be trying to avoid, and lots more people would have had to make the same sacrifice of money and reading pleasure to make TimesSelect a viable business proposition. Little wonder, then, that TimesSelect ended September 19, 2007, with a "letter to readers" from's senior vice president and general manager, Vivian Schiller.

Schiller began her career in the Soviet Union (as a Russian interpreter for Turner Broadcasting), making the Berlin Wall analogy all the more fitting. But she was destined for more spectacular failures. Three weeks before the new Times paywall went up, she was ousted as president of NPR after two of her fundraising executives were taped making invidious comments to a pair of conservative activists posing as Islamic extremists with millions to dole out. Earlier, she had presided over the firing of Juan Williams for confessing, on Fox News Channel, that Muslims on airplanes made him nervous (see Presswatch, TAS, December 2010/January 2011). She quipped that Williams ought to see a psychiatrist.

It's possible the Times also learned a better lesson from the failure of TimesSelect. Perhaps not coincidentally, the paper cleared out its stable of op-ed columnists in advance of the new paywall's erection. The prolix Frank Rich was the first to go, signing off in mid-March with this admission: "Believe it or not, an opinion writer can sometimes get sick of his own voice." Not only do I believe it, I get chills just trying to imagine the depth of the torment.

The following week, Bob Herbert followed Rich out the door. He explained to a Times reporter that his column's "rigid 800-word limit" no longer suited him, "so I am leaving the New York Times and the rewards and rigors of daily journalism with the intent of writing more expansively and more aggressively about the injustices visited on working people, the poor, and the many others in our society who find themselves on the wrong side of power."

Mr. Herbert, with all due respect, writing "more expansively" is the wrong move. Brevity is the soul of wit. Try Twitter instead.

Still, this is a good start. If the Times can induce Krugman, Dowd, and Friedman to quit too, $195 a year for a subscription may start to sound like an attractive offer.

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