Hitting the Paywall

by Daniel Briskin

Approximately two years ago, in March 2011, The New York Times introduced their paywall, the digital barrier against accessing more than 20 articles per month without subscribing (subsequently, access has been further reduced to only ten articles per month for non-subscribers). Although the Times was not the first publication to limit access to content, their paywall arguably caused one of the greatest brouhahas in regards to upsetting the status quo of modern news distribution. For many people, the Times acts as the default source for nuanced analysis of current events of import, both domestic and international. After providing free online service for over a decade, abruptly demanding that consumers pay for a once free service caused a widespread uproar.

Paying for goods and services is the normal way to conduct business, so to make people pay for online access to the Times only fits with the economic norm. Justification and precedent certainly exist in asking users to pay for content—all businesses have general operating costs they must cover, and decreasing advertising revenue only increases the difficulty of running a profitable newspaper. The reason people became upset is that, overnight, a free service became exclusive. Although the Times has been singled out thus far, it is not the only company to use paywalls: so do The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and others.

Some people may argue that news and political analysis available on free internet sites such as CNN, Slate, or Reuters is of the same quality as that found behind the paywall of the Times or The Economist. However, while the purpose of these different categories of sites is to provide information to the public in a for-profit manner, the information they choose to provide is, intentionally, different. As a non-scientific comparison of the information available on these sites and what the different readers seek, as of the afternoon of March 9, 2013 the “most shared” article on Slate was titled “Leggings Aren’t Pants. They’re Superior.” In contrast, the “most recommended” article on The Economist was a nearly 3,000-word analysis on Venezuela after Chávez.

Paywalls do not simply block news; myriad other sites use them to restrict full or premium access to content: software providers distribute free/cheap versions and charge for premium software packages; media sites such as HBOGO are for paying subscribers; and of course scientific journals such as Nature, Cell, and Science demand fees for accessing the majority of their articles.

Thus, paywalls create a clear division between those who have access and those who do not. While this divide can be for something as banal as having access to Spotify on an iPhone versus only on a computer, the difference created could also be between having access to the information needed to make informed decisions, be it in regards to political opinion, the financial decision of how to invest, or the professional decision of what project to pursue.

In the end, the paywall is a somewhat paradoxical creation. My comrades and I relish taking advantage of all the different content sources I have discussed; we cannot enjoy reading from a news source with typographical errors or generally lower-level diction and syntax. However, we cannot individually afford to pay for all of the content desired. Therefore, when the Times paywall went up, my peers and I shifted our outlook, such that we were willing to pay for our content, but only as efficiently as possible. Groups of friends began to distribute subscription costs with a few considerations in mind: to what services do we already subscribe? Are there redundant subscriptions among us? Are there services to which we do not subscribe that we would like to receive? Using these questions as guides for planning subscriptions, conglomerates were formed of a few people sharing usernames and passwords, dividing costs and sharing services. In the end, passwords could carry greater power than cash to normalize subscription costs.

By paying less money to content providers, I decrease their ability to provide me with the content I desire. Unfortunately, I am currently unable to offer a solution to this conundrum, other than to make more money and pay for my own subscriptions (which, as much as I would like, simply isn’t going to happen in the near future). Perhaps the Times and others should simply be happy that someone ponies up for their content rather than simply pirating it.

April 2013