Does the LA Times paywall smack readers in the face?

Newspapers everywhere are tinkering with “metered paywalls” in the hopes of hitting on the right mix of exclusion and access. The Los Angeles Times became the latest such paywall player last month, limiting readers to 15 stories a month unless they pay for a digital subscription.

The strategy appears sound but, according to one analyst, the LA Times may have botched the execution by erecting a “rock solid” wall rather than a porous screen used at other papers.

“The way they rolled it out and instituted it was very inelegant,” according to Marissa Gluck, managing partner at Radar Research.

Gluck says the LA Times implemented its barrier too abruptly and failed to allow readers to access more content through the back door of social media. She says this contrasts with the New York Times, which made a strategic decision to let its paywall be “very permeable.”

So what does this mean in practice? Well, here’s what happened after I had used up my 15 free articles.

Someone posted an LA Times story on my Facebook page:

But when I tried to click through and read it, this is what happened:

This bucks the prevailing wisdom at other publications which holds that socially shared content is too valuable to put behind a paywall.

Nancy Sullivan, LA Times VP of communications, says the newspaper’s paywall strategy was unrolled very deliberatively and that executives studied not just other publications but platforms like Amazon and iTunes. She added that the program has so far been a success:

“We are very pleased with the initial reader, advertiser and industry reaction to our membership program. In the 4 weeks since launch, we’ve seen extensive activation amongst existing home delivery customers and many new members have joined.”

The LA Times is also offering a number of carrots to go with its article limit stick. These include offering subscribers discounts and special seats at events. And, intriguingly, the publication is offering “members” early sneak peaks of columns by people like celebrity food writer Jonathan Gold.

This “subscriber as member” notion could catch on, but the paper may consider a softer sell than the big black box pictured above.

The paywall process remains an evolving one for the LA Times and others. Gannett, for instance, is poised to gain valuable marketing insight as it tweaks the meter on at least 80 different papers in the coming year.

Overall, though, papers must still wrestle with the fact that they are not “digital natives” like the Huffington Post. As Matthew Ingram noted yesterday, hybrid publications are distracted as they try to grow their digital business while also squeezing the remain profit out of their legacy print products.

But what the old-time paper pushers do have is the power of their brands. The Economist has already become a nimble digital property — there seems to no reason why great brands like the New York Times and the LA Times can’t do the same. The only question is whether they will figure it out before the sands in the print hourglass run out.