Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Testing News Paywalls: Which Are Leaky, Which Are Airtight?

It's widely known but rarely acknowledged: Most news paywalls are full of holes.

Publishers aren’t just offering a few free articles per month. They’re building in sweeping exceptions that allow tech-savvy readers—and often simply those entering through search or social media—to access most or all of what subscribers pay for.

It’s easy to understand why subscription outlets want to keep people out. But, even as the so-called “Trump bump” drives up new subscriptions, many also see powerful reasons for letting a lot of people in: from promotion, to data collection, to greater impact on public discourse.

We tested the paywalls at eight prominent subscription news outlets, three daily newspapers and five magazines—The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Nation, Foreign Policy, Harvard Business Review, and The Information—and found that all but one of those were “soft” to one degree or another, and six of eight allowed for some form of unlimited exception, allowing non-subscribers to read widely.

Paywalls have been a part of online news since The Wall Street Journal’s launched in 1996. The Journal’s approach, from that time until last year, largely mimicked its print subscription model: the “hard” paywall, paying customers only.

The New York Times pioneered the alternative “soft,” or “leaky” model in 2011. It allowed non-subscribers to read 20 articles per month (since reduced to 10). And, it created mechanisms for unlimited access.

The exceptions worked like this: When a reader arrived at a story through a search engine or by clicking a link on social media, that story wasn’t counted toward the free allotment. The meter would kick in only if the reader clicked on another article on the site.

Non-subscribers could also subvert the mechanism entirely by manipulating “cookie” files, a common marketing tracker stored on readers’ computers. Deleting cookies restarts the counter tracking how many stories a user has read, and the “private” mode built into most browsers prevents cookies from being saved in the first place.

Since then, paywalls have become much more common, and—with steep, long-term declines in print and digital display ad revenues across the industry— far greater contributors to publishers’ bottom lines.

Times2020, a planning document released by the publisher in January, identified the Times as a “subscription-first business.” Over the past year, digital subscriber numbers have shot up around the industry, a phenomenon referred to as the “Trump bump.” The Times added 755,000 new subscribers in the year ended on March 26, 2017, a 65 percent increase, according to its most recent quarterly report.

The Wall Street Journal signed up around 300,000 in roughly the same time period, representing growth of about 33 percent, Robert Thompson, CEO of the Journal’s corporate parent, said on an earnings call. Digital subscriptions now make up 53 percent of the subscriptions at the company, up from 38 percent just two years ago.

Overall, paywalls and paywall policies are more important for publishers than ever before. And, in general, it’s the Times’s “soft” model, unlimited exceptions and all, that has prevailed.

by Ariel Stulberg, Columbia Journalism Review |  Read more:
Image: NYT