New York Times plugs big leak in paywall

New York Times

The New York Times has been using a so-called “metered paywall” for more than a year to limit how many articles a non-subscriber can read. The paywall has been more of a nuisance than a serious obstacle, however, thanks to easy tricks to get around it.

Starting today, though, the Grey Lady is getting tough on the scofflaws by closing one of the more popular loopholes. As New York magazine reports, it’s become harder to zap the “please subscribe” ads that appear in front of a story when you’ve reached your monthly quotient of free stories. Until now, the most popular way to do this was to simply delete the end of the website address.

This easy trick, known to every college student, led some to deride the Times as a technological tyro. People in the news industry, however, say the Times deliberately chose to make the paywall “leaky” so as not to alienate casual visitors. Here is what Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy told NY mag today:

“When we launched our digital subscription plan we knew there were loopholes to access our content beyond the allotted number of articles each month. We have made some adjustments and will continue to make adjustments to optimize the gateway by implementing technical security solutions to prohibit abuse and protect the value of our content.”

I contacted Murphy to see if the New York Times will also begin to apply the meter to people who arrive at a Times story by way of social media — an increasingly important source of traffic for news outlets. Update: Murphy replied “not at this time.”

The decision to tighten the paywall comes at a crucial period at which investors are asking if the Times will be able to significantly grow its current digital subscriber base of 640,000. That number has been growing at a healthy base but the Times remains coy about how many of those are discount subscriptions; investors are also asking if the Times can continue to expand this base beyond hardcore NYT fans.

In the bigger picture, paywalls have become much less contentious in 2013 as nearly every newspaper is adopting them in one form or another. Critics like my colleague Mathew Ingram remain skeptical, claiming they drive readers away; he suggests alternatives like letting people pay for special access to certain writers or events.  (Note: We’re going to be talking about alternative monetization strategies at our paidContent Live conference in New York on April 17).

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