By Noah | March 29, 2011
One of the excuses that’s been trotted out by several commentators in defense of the New York Times paywall is that it’s “just like public radio”. Well, no. When I contribute to public radio, which I do, my contribution helps make all of that content freely available to everyone. If I “contribute” to the New York Times paywall, I’m buying myself access, and supporting a model in which valuable Web content is only available to those who can afford it.
One of the things that I love about both the NYT and public radio is that they are such important resources for educating everyone. When I was growing up we certainly weren’t rich, but a copy of the Times was quite affordable, and the Times was the main way I learned about the world. The day Kennedy was shot, it cost ten cents to read the Times’ coverage, so everyone could. It was and is an extraordinary resource: in those days, you read the Times to get, for example, the full text of presidential speeches, or to see the Pentagon papers unfold, or just to read multiple articles each day with differing perspectives on the Vietnam war. The archives of the Times were freely available on microfilm at my local public library which, of course, paid for those copies with tax dollars — a daily history of the whole 20th century, effectively for free. Every school child was expected to be able to do current events research using the Times, and that often involved scanning way more than 20 articles/month. And by the way, if you did pay your dime for a copy, that was for the whole family, and often for friends too. The Times paywall is a system which, due to its high cost and very limited exceptions, limits this wonderful resource to those who can afford a very significant payment. In fact, even the act of mailing someone a link to a Times article becomes disruptive, now, because following that link might cause the recipient to exceed his or her free limits — you probably didn’t notice that the Kennedy link above goes to an NYT page until you clicked it (that page is probably free, but you certainly don’t know that unless you check the link very carefully before clicking it, and maybe not even then).
I understand that the Times needs a new business model. In fact, I would be very happy if the Times were like public radio, I.e. a nonprofit that accepts donations from those who care to pay, to support universal access. Whether that would be practical I have no clue, but if so I would contribute generously.
Even if none of the above were a concern, the Times has made a huge mistake by building a system that is so easily defeated and for which the rules are so confusing. Links from Twitter are said not to count, but the Times hasn’t told us exactly how that works. Is it only links followed from the Twitter Web interface? Do links followed from Tweetdeck count? If I find a link in a Tweet and email it to a friend, and they follow it from the email, does that count? Does it matter if URL shorteners are used? How do we know until it’s too late whether following a link has counted toward our limits? I may be missing something, but systems like this don’t make for happy users. Simple instructions for avoiding the limits are already everywhere on the Web; I presume at least some of them work. So, in addition to all the other frustrations, honest users face the temptation to cheat, just to see whether that 21st article is interesting or not.
In a nutshell, the Times now has a system that, if used according to the rules, limits quality access to mainly the wealthy. As an added twist, the rules are confusing, brittle, supposedly easy to circumvent, and poorly documented. This is nothing at all like public radio.