New York Times | Press+
The New York Times Media Group says it has "approximately 454,000 paid subscribers" to its digital products and, starting April, will allow non-subscribers to read only 10 free articles per month instead of the current 20. If you already subscribe, you'll be able to gift a free 12-week digital subscription to someone you like (or, if they really hate The New York Times, someone you enjoy tormenting).

In an email, Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy says the gate will slam shut earlier because "We think that 10 articles a month plus free access to the homepage and section fronts strikes a better balance between visiting and subscribing."

I asked how many people are camping out in the borderland between 10 and 20 free articles whom the Times are hoping to coax inside the paywall. "The number of non-subscribers who turn more than 10 pages but less than 20 is relatively small," Murphy writes, "so this move will not have an impact on most users and we expect minimal impact on traffic.  And, we hope to convince this segment of our audience that they should take advantage of the many benefits of subscribing."

A detailed analysis of data from 285 Press+ paywall clients supports the lower threshold:

"Publishers find they can set their meter at a lower point than they originally thought: On average, Press+ Affiliates now allow readers 14 page views for free each month. That average, however, has fallen and continues to fall as publishers see no loss in ad revenue and reach only a small portion of their audience (on average, less than 10%) with the higher meter settings they deploy at launch. “We counsel publishers to start with high meters, ensure that they retain online advertising and online readership, then over time lower the meters to grow subscriptions more quickly,” said co-founder Gordon Crovitz. Increasingly, publishers are determining their meter settings not by benchmarking themselves against high-profile meter-users such as The New York Times (which gives readers 20 free articles each month) but by deciding what percentage of their online content they want to give away for free."

The New York Times might not have looped Steven Brill in on its decision to cut the number of free online articles from 20 to 10, but the cofounder of RR Donnelley's Press+, a metered-access solution for newspapers, says his company has already found the right range for its clients: Depending on the paper, somewhere between 4 and 9 freebies. Maybe 1 percent of your readers will "hit the meter" if you've got it set to 20, Brill says, and 20 percent of those will pay. You have to balance the ad revenue you might lose against whatever that would bring in.

Brill says papers using Press+ have only adjusted their meters downward. "We’ve also had some publishers who when they launch they get too much religion and they wanna have the meter on 1," Brill told me by the phone. "We just beat on them not to do that." That's too close to a straight paywall, and those kill signups, he says. The sweet spot arrives, Brill says, when you, the reader, are "not angry, you're not surprised" that you're being asked to pony up.

Setting your meter at 10 articles, Brill says, could make sense if you've got 90 percent of your ad inventory sold out. Most newspapers don't hit that, he says. "So you're not losing any revenue," he says, if you're affecting only 10 percent of your readers per month.

Press+ clients get a dashboard where they can set the dials based on such metrics, and the service also runs drills for them to help them figure out where to draw the line. The New York Times, Brill ventures, "looked at their data, and as robust as their ad sales are online, there is so much enthusiasm and demand for the content that’s in The New York Times that they’re going to get higher numbers of people paying." That's the beauty of a metered system, says Brill: publishers don't have to choose between paywalls or free content. "You get away from this binary choice."

Traffic to, meanwhile, has been "essentially flat" since the Times started charging its heaviest users, Murphy said. The site had 48.463 million unique visitors worldwide in January 2011; a year later there were 47.944 million, a drop of 1 percent. "The traffic on our site has much more to do with the news cycle," Murphy said.

Related: A year into the 'Times' digital subscription program, analysts and insiders see surprising success, and more challenges to come (Capital New York)