The New York Times’ paywall is doomed to fail

The New York Times has just implemented its infamous “paywall” on its website. Readers can now view 20 articles a month for free, or pay $15 every four weeks for unlimited access.

To quote Star Wars, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

The New York Times is betting that its content will be good enough for web surfers to cough up a measly $3.75 a week for access to it. They’re wrong.

The New York Times is considered as one of the finest newspapers in the world by some, but in cyberspace, free overrules good nearly every time. And almost no one gets their news from just one or two sources any more.

By implementing a paywall, the NY Times has virtually guaranteed that its visits will plummet. And they have—according to an April 12 article in PC Magazine, from March 28 (the day the paywall went up) to April 9, total page views decreased by 11 to 30 percent.

I don’t want to be a cynic who offers only criticism without offering solutions as well. The fact is, something must be done in order for high-quality, reputable news media to survive in a world where more and more people get their news from amateurish websites full of errors and bias.

The solution is to keep the paywall, but make it less painful. A reader may not pay $15 a month for unlimited articles, but he or she might pay, say, 2 cents an article. It’s called a micro-pay system. The theory is that readers connect an online pay service (such as PayPal) or credit card when they register with a site. They’re then billed for their exact usage. If a reader consumes 50 stories a month from the Times (about one or two per day), they’d be billed just $1.

Sure, for hard-core news junkies, the New York Times’ subscription fee is a bargain. But for the casual reader who may get their media from a variety of sources, including free news aggregators like Google or Yahoo!, paywalls are pricey.

Suppose you’d like to read a half-dozen articles each from the New York Times and five or six other paywalled publications every day. Soon you may be paying $100 a month or more to read online newspapers, when much of the same information is available for free. But if those sites all used micro-pay, and you read a total of 1000 articles a month, you’d pay about one-fifth that much, without being tethered to a particular set of publications.

The Times has to ask itself, do we want to get a small amount of money from a lot of people, or a larger sum from fewer people? Ultimately, they’ll have to run those numbers and decide. But in the meantime, the numbers don’t lie—a 30 percent decline in page views is significant and doesn’t bode well for the future.

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