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A number of my LJ contacts are obsessive NY Times readers. I can certainly understand that -- the NYT offers some very high quality content. And yet, time and time again, the NYT shows it's very confused about its goals: The newspaper's leadership wants you to read the paper, yet it doesn't.

Let's start with the good old free registration shtick that the NYT site has been engaged in for a few years now. This likely makes sense for regular readers: You can set up personalized email subscriptions, use your account to buy archive articles, manage your physical paper subscription... And that's it. The NYT never did give much weight to the importance of personalized news presentation, it seems.

Perhaps the most important advantage that regular readers have is that their cookies are refreshed on each subsequent visit -- what, you thought the NYT wasn't tracking your reading habits? -- which, in theory, should keep them perpetually logged in. Not so for the casual reader: Too long between your visits, and instead of the article you came to see, you'll find yourself staring at a login screen, grasping for a username and password you've long forgotten.

In fact, the value proposition for the casual reader has always been lacking. The NYT has basically been saying to visitors "give us a better way to track your browsing habits, and we'll... stop harassing you about it." As a casual reader, I got absolutely nothing out of the free registration, except the ability to read the material. Sort of makes sense, thought, doesn't it? The NYT is a private content provider, and can decide to let me access the content or not, based on whatever arbitrary set of rules it wants to go by.

Well, sort of. This only works as long as you forget that that news are a commodity, and a very time-sensitive one, at that. If I, the casual reader, can't get my fresh news from the NYT, I will happily go somewhere else. The true selling point of the NYT's coverage -- the insightful analysis and commentary -- isn't a draw when it comes to breaking news (both because there isn't enough time for the high-profile writers cover every bit of breaking news, and because there isn't much point -- you want to dedicate your best writers' time to long-lasting articles, not ones people will forget about in a week).

The catch is that once you do get in the habit of reading some of the columnists (say, Paul Krugman), you're no longer a casual reader. You do visit more regularly; you do get some advantages from the email updates; you don't get stuck with a logon nag screen at every visit.

But isn't all of the above suggesting that the paywall, as it's been presented, is a good idea? The NYT is specifically not targeting the casual reader -- 20 article views per month are going to remain free, a number I'm sure the data produced by the reg-wall helped arrive at -- and is instead aiming for the audience that clearly does find added value in the NYT -- the aforementioned regular readers.

As the post title says, I disagree, for a number of reasons. Greg Satell at Digital Tonto has an excellent writeup on why the paywall is really dumb, but I would like to expand on what I consider his most crucial point.

"Marketers are willing to pay more for consumers than consumers are willing to pay for content."

In fact, marketers are willing to pay a lot more: A 2007 study in the Newspaper Research Journal cites advertising as being the largest source of newspaper revenue, accounting for 70-80% of the total. Subscriptions accounted for about 18% of revenue, at best a 4:1 ratio.

So what happens when a service that was previously free starts costing you money? Some people can't go without, and pay the new price, no matter what it is. But even the case of a monopoly offering an indispensible service some people will simply not have the resources to pay. The NYT is neither a monopoly nor is its offering indispensible. It's an unavoidable reality that some of its dedicated readership will not pay the subscription fees; the question is how many will.

Remember the above ratio? The NYT is looking to get both subscription fees and advertising revenue from the same group of people. This attempt is, inevitably, going to shrink that group of people. In order to break even, the NYT must get four people to subscribe for every one person who abandons this for a rotten deal and goes elsewhere. An 80% lead conversion rate? I have some serious doubts.

But it gets worse. Most times, online advertisers pay per click-through or per thousand impressions. The longer you keep a reader on your site, the more page-views that customer gathers per visit, the greater your count of ad exposures per customer and the greater your chance of a click-through on an ad (not to mention, the greater your dataset on that reader's habits and preferences, and the more targeted – and lucrative – the advertising). The 20-article limit actively discourages people from browsing around the site. Those article suggestions that automatically pop up when you hit the bottom of your current story – a brilliant method, in my opinion – have suddenly become much less useful. Remember: Articles you arrive at via a social media link don't count against your monthly limit, but articles you browse to from that point on, do.

The NYT is hoping that its current dedicated readership will continue driving new readers to the site, and that the paywall will then serve to convert these new, casual readers to subscribers. What the NYT fails to acknowledge is that the people most likely to post links on social media are the very same dedicated readers whose numbers it's about to shrink by way of the paywall. And the conversion of casual readers? Let's put it this way: When registration was free, the most popular site on (which offers dummy registrations for anyone to use) was I wonder what that means as far as lead conversion rates when money is involved.


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