Media

Why everyone’s confused by The New York Times’ paywall

lady huhFor a publication that’s supposed to set the gold standard for writing about the news, The New York Times has done a pretty poor job of explaining its new payment plan.

I mean, if you look at reader responses to The Times’ announcement, you’d think that most Times readers are about to be left outside the paywall. In fact, both Times representatives and other experts predict that the vast majority of readers will never hit the 20-articles-per-month limit.

The confusion increases once you start getting into the details. According to The Times’ Frequently Asked Questions page, when readers follow links from search engines, blogs, social networking services like Facebook, and pretty much anything that’s not The New York Times website, those articles “will count toward your monthly limit of 20 free articles, but you will still be able to view it even if you’ve already read your 20 free articles.” There’s an additional five-article-per-day limit to following links from Google.

I had to read that explanation a couple of times before I understood it, and it looks like I wasn’t the only one. Judging from outside coverage, The Times has utterly failed to explain that aspect of the paywall to reporters and bloggers.

NPR reports that “a page click through a Google search or a friend’s referral via Facebook or Twitter won’t count against you,” which is wrong — it still counts towards your quota, you just won’t get blocked. Over at BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow complains that this “just makes it harder to link to the Times,” even though his readers should never be blocked when they follow one of his links. (Although the simple existence of the paywall and the quota might dissuade Doctorow from linking to The Times anyway.) And TechCrunch’s MG Siegler writes about The Times’ new “social loophole”, even though the exemption includes any site, including TechCrunch itself.

To be clear, I’m not trying to give these other writers a hard time — these are mostly muddled explanations rather than flat-out inaccuracies (or hey, maybe I’m the one who’s gotten confused), and either way I think they stem from the fact that the plan itself is so convoluted.

To my mind, all of this confusion supports the argument — voiced at VentureBeat and elsewhere — that The Times’ plan is just too confusing. Heck, even The Times reporter covering the plan had to issue a correction.

And if the confusion continues, it could be catastrophic for the paywall. Casual readers might stay away from Times articles, thinking that they’re about to get charged even though they aren’t. Other publications will hesitate to link to Times articles because they’ll be worried their readers will get blocked. And loyal readers may become frustrated because they don’t understand what they’re buying.