The New York Times is estimated to have spent $40 million to $50 million to construct an elaborate new paywall that will force some users of the site to pay a monthly fee to read paper content. But just days after rolling out a version of the paywall, the newspaper is playing whack-a-mole with loyal readers who have found simple ways around it.
In the days since the paywall went live, readers have leveraged Twitter and some simple Web programming to circumvent the paywall, which limits readers to 20 free articles a month. Kristin Mason, a New York Times spokesperson, said in an e-mail message, that the company is monitoring the situation, but expects “some percentage of people who find ways around our digital subscriptions.”
The paywall at nytimes.com, one of the most heavily trafficked news Web sites, is designed to counter the decline in subscribers to the Times print edition and strike a balance between the Times historical policy of offering content for free online, and the fiscal realities of 21st century publishing. Casual readers are allowed to view 20 articles for free each month. Once they have exhausted that allotment, the paywall blocks them from viewing the full content of articles without a subscription.
However, Times readers quickly discovered holes in the paywall. For one, the Times allows readers to link to articles from Twitter and other referring sites without it counting against their quota. Some Twitter users jumped on that, creating an account, @FreeNYTimes, that simply publishes links to Times articles as they’re posted.
Other readers noticed that the paywall doesn’t really block the Times Web site from serving content. Instead, it serves the content but obscures it with an overlay image that directs readers to the online subscription page. However, readers who know enough to view the HTML page source on their browser can continue to read content without paying. David Hayes, a Times reader from Waterloo, Ontario in Canada, spent his lunch hour coding up a bookmarklet, NYTClean, that strips out any messy HTML and allows readers to view the page source as readable text. Hayes posted the bookmark on his blog, euri.ca, generating tens of thousands of hits to his Web page.
Its unclear what the Times’s next steps will be. As Joshua Benton pointed out in this (excellent) analysis on the Web site of the Nieman Foundation, the Times appears to be betting that many of its readers will be wary of funky work-arounds and more comfortable paying for access. However – people being economic animals – the Times might find out that technophobic readers are still willing to do some googling and root out a browser plug in if doing so saves them $15 to $35 a month.
Mason, of the Times, said that the company designed its new digital subscriptions feature to “allow a generous amount of content to be free through various methods, including the Web site, apps and links from third-party sites like social media, blogs and search.” Times spokespeople have been quoted elsewhere as saying that, while they want to promote openness, they’re also on the lookout for attempts to game the new paywall system and will take steps to respond to those.