Although the world is supposed to end this weekend, it actually already missed its chance. Back on March 28th, we stood by for Web Armageddon, as the New York Times launched, finally, its toll booth for access to its website. Pundits and gurus, in the spirit of “the Web shall be free,” predicted the fall of the Times, and the end of this “stupid” paywall idea (ignoring evidence such as the Wall Street Journal’s long-standing paywall).
Turns out the world did not end. Didn’t even come close.
Within two weeks, web traffic trackers Hitwise and comScore revealed data showing visits to nytimes.com down in the 15% range, and page views down a bit more. “See, I told you!” the pundits said, for what I guess we would term Armageddon-lite.
No biggie. The metaphor of a toll booth is intentional. Think of a highway that used to be a freeway, then one day became a toll road. Some people found ways – side roads, etc. – to get where they were going while avoiding paying the toll. TRAFFIC DROPPED. Yet a majority of drivers could do the math, and figured paying the toll was better than wasting 30 or more minutes driving around it. The toll booth remained.
And so it is with the Times. The paywall will not fall.
The folks at the Times have been thinking about this since approximately 2000. I know, because I sat in many a meeting with them then tossing ideas around. Trial balloons were sent up over the ensuing years – archive access, TimesSelect, etc. Meanwhile, an unassailable track record on ad revenues was built. The math on a paywall, circa 2011, became pretty easy to do.
There has been some debate on how much the Times spent designing a “burglar proof” paywall - $20 million or $40 million…who cares? That the Times would pony up more than ONE million bucks on this is beyond significant. You don’t walk away from an investment like that.
Nothing on the Web can be foolproof nor hackproof. It is computer code. The Times knowingly left open a truck-size loophole whereby news seekers could come in free via Google or Facebook. The Hitwise and comScore data show the use of those paths has not increased in any statistically significant way. Too much work.
Here’s the killer for paywall killers. No one has what the Times has. Not Google. Not Facebook. Not Demand Media. Ad nauseum. This will put more distance between quality and content farms. To that end, keep your eye on Arianna, as she builds up “original” content this year. Mark me, a year from now, we’ll be hearing about a paywall for the Huffington Post.