If NYTimes.com does put up a metered wall…

By Steve Outing

New York Times Ready to Charge Online Readers,” said NYMag.com’s Daily Intel in a Sunday report.

I’m not sure whether to believe the story or not, but since there’s no definitive word from NYT executives yet, let’s play along and pretend this is an accurate report: NYTimes.com this spring will launch a “metered” web payment system, where readers can sample X number of free articles before being asked to subscribe.

If that’s true and the system is as simple as that — “Dear loyal Times reader: You’ve read 10 articles for free this month; to read more, sign up for a paid subscription” — then it’s a bad decision. TechDirt minced no words with its story: “NY Times Apparently Planning To Commit Suicide Online With Paywall.”

Or go read Jeff Jarvis’ take on his BuzzMachine blog, where he states the obvious problem with the metered approach to web news content:

“They would would end up charging — and, they should fear, sending away — the readers who are worth the most while serving free those who are worth least. … Why charge your best customers? Why single them out? Why risk driving them away? The logic eludes me.”

But we’re talking about the most revered newspaper in the English-speaking world, and it’s not staffed by dummies. I would hope the Times leadership learned from the unsuccessful TimesSelect partial paid-wall experiment. The Times is a general-interest newspaper with a global reach and global influence; it would be foolish to turn away loyal online readers unwilling or unable to pay U.S. prices that aren’t realistic in some economies (e.g., India, the Middle East), not to mention invite other news organizations to take over their mantle as most influential news brand by not locking most of the world out.

I don’t know what decision NYT executives will announce, but if they go the metered paywall route, I can only hope that they get it right. While I continue to think that a voluntary membership model that gets paying members special privileges and commercial offers from advertisers is a better way to go, if metered paywall is the decision, then here’s what it should look like to have a chance of succeeding:

  • Allow several free article views per day before a reader hits any kind of paywall. Ten articles per month and then a paywall, as the Financial Times’ website offers, is a non-starter for NYTimes.com and will result in unacceptable advertising losses for NYTimes.com as site traffic drops.
  • This makes way more sense than the FT.com model, because for heavy users of NYTimes.com, they will see the paywall or alternative offer every day. FT.com users hit the paywall once per month at 10 articles, then most will not come back. FT.com can afford not to care, because it’s after business people who can afford to pay for FT’s specialized business and financial news coverage. It’s not after a massive audience the way NYTimes.com is (or should be).
  • Give the NYTimes.com user who hits the “paywall” after, say, three or four stories in one day several options for continuing to read. Offering only the option of subscribing is, and I can’t think of a better word, dumb.
  • What should the options be?
    1. Subscriptions for unfettered access, offered in various terms: monthly, 6-month, annual, lifetime, etc.
    2. A day-pass rate ($1 or $2?) for those wanting more but unwilling to commit to a subscription.
    3. Adjust the day-pass (and subscription rates) based on the country of the reader (determined by IP address). While a day pass to NYTimes.com might cost $1.50 to North American online readers, the price should be, say, the equivalent of 25 cents for readers in India where the standard wage is far less than in the U.S.
    4. Offer an alternative to paying for a day-pass: View a 30-second video commercial, which can’t be skipped or fast-forwarded, for a blockbuster ad or a targeted ad based on what the site knows about the reader. Or, assuming NYTimes.com has good targeting ability (possible with non-paying subscribers because the site makes everyone register), let the user take a market survey for an ad client who’s paying a premium; then give the reader a free day or week-long pass to unlimited articles.
    5. Offer the special membership I mentioned above as an option. This might cost more than a subscription, but would include extra goodies such as free or discount tickets to newsmaker events, and lucrative discount and free-offer deals from participating advertisers (e.g., two-for-one dinner or theater-ticket offers each month). The membership would also include unfettered access to the full website with no reading quotas.
    6. Offer something for those not willing to pay but who still want more. This might be a partial wall, where after viewing three NYT stories on one day, subsequent stories show only the first three or four paragraphs of a story — followed by the list of options above. I’d add even one more in this instance: a micropayment for, say, 25 cents to view the rest of the article (if it’s article No. 4 read by the user that day and they want to view the whole thing).
    7. Allow paying members of voluntary content-donation networks special access. Let’s say that I, a paying member to the Kachingle multi-website donation service, visit NYTimes.com and click its Kachingle medallion, indicating that I support NYTimes.com and some of my $5 a month paid to Kachingle gets proportioned every month to NYTimes.com based on my usage of the site. Perhaps for Kachingle member-supporters of NYTimes.com, the daily free-article limit becomes 10, or 20, rather than three, before the paywall and other options are shown.
    8. Establish some sort of convenient system for libraries and schools, so that users of public computers don’t run into annoying paywall barriers.
    9. Finally, use the paywall strategy for special events or promotions. For instance, right now the NYTimes.com metered wall could be set at three free articles, then the top offer for continued access to more full Times content for the next week is to make a $10 donation to Haiti earthquake relief, or a $5 donation for two days of full access.

In general, I’m against paywalls for general-news websites, for reasons that I and many other digital-media pundits have expressed many times over. But that’s a black-and-white view, and I think there are shades of gray that might work, as I’ve outlined above.

So … Dear Bill Keller and NYT executive team: Please don’t blow it with a restrictive metered paywall that will damage your brand’s influence and bottom line. If you’re dead set on the metered paywall model — and I still have hope that you’re not — then at least implement it intelligently.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!