The New York Times’ Paywall Isn’t, Really

The New York Times is trying to turn free surfers into paid digital subscribers with its new online pay model. That’s why it’s going to cut people off at 20 articles per month on—unless they pay up, that is.

But this is one paywall that’s missing more than a few bricks.

The plan announced Thursday would really affect only a small slice of the Times’ online readership, and even they would have ways around the content restrictions. Plus, all of the Times’ print subscribers will get, for free, the most expensive level of digital access, the $35 for four weeks all-you-can-eat Web site, smartphone and tablet plan. Subscribing to only the Times’ Sunday edition, even with the intention of throwing it away unread, will be the cheapest way to get all of the paper’s digital content.

“It’s easier to beat than other paywalls,” said eMarketer analyst Paul Verna. “There is definitely more leeway built in than The Wall Street Journal model.”

The paper won’t say how much money it expects to make from its digital subscriptions, but for now, it won’t be much. At most, then, this seems like a tentative step—a way for the Times to start charging for its digital content without freezing out the casual readers who make up the bulk of its sizeable Web traffic. Or maybe the Times is smarter than all the early critics of the plan believe, and this is a way to start getting people used to paying for its content on smartphones and tablets.

People will still be able to read articles accessed through search engines, blog links and social media, and those articles won’t count toward their monthly quota. Although there will be a five-article-per-day limit on articles accessed through Google (but perhaps not other search engines), there seem to be plenty of other ways for people to hop over the “fence,” as Nieman Journalism Lab’s Ken Doctor called it, in contrasting it with a more traditional paywall.

One publisher who is a proponent of paywalls said it could be a mistake to have so many varied loopholes. “In our experience, it’s better to count and value every page the same,” he said.

A rep for the Times said the “vast majority” of users wouldn’t hit the 20-article limit. The digital subscriptions are really aimed at heavy users, the 15 percent that drives about 80 percent of the paper’s Web traffic.

And data show that most visits to the site come through those avenues that will also serve as ways around the paywall. According to, only 17 percent of visits to in February came from readers who went directly to the site, meaning 83 percent was referral traffic. The top referrer was Google, which accounted for 15 percent of visits, followed by Facebook at 4 percent.

Verna, the eMarketer analyst, criticized the pricing strategy. ”They are hitting their most loyal and active users the hardest. And to simply add the price of Web access to tablet access with no bundled prices makes no sense at all,” he said

Verna suspects that the Times is trying to reset the pricing markets in the tablet space by coming out with such high prices, while the company “may be resigned to the fact that the Web is mostly free.”

Related: ‘What Am I Paying For?’