A year later, a look back at opining on the NYT paywall

The New York Times’ announcement that it will ratchet down on the number of articles that non-subscribers can view for free, from 20 to 10 a month, will inspire a new round of opinionating about whether its subscription plan is working and how readers will respond. Here’s a look back at what people said a year ago when the Times announced the details of its paywall.

In general, predictions that were based on numbers rather than ideology seem most accurate. Ken Doctor and Rick Edmonds both set 300,000 digital subscribers as a modest benchmark; there are now 454,000.

Sunday print circulation is up, confirming initial readings that the plan was designed to slow the erosion of subscribers. I occasionally hear people say they’ve never run into the wall because of their reliance on social, search and multiple devices. And although some speculated that people would stop linking and tweeting to Times stories, or that people would click on them less as they rationed their free allotment, I’ve noticed no shortage of nyti.ms shortened links on Twitter.

Tell us in the comments: Whose crystal ball was clearest?

Cory Doctorow: “The paywall just makes it harder to link to the Times, reducing its significance to people who use the net for news (that is, everyone with money to spend, give or take). I don’t know what will work for the Times, and I applaud experimentation, but it seems to me that you should design your experiments with graceful failure modes. Spending a year or two or three not being linked to is not such a mode.” (BoingBoing, March 17, 2011)

Rick Edmonds: “A Sunday-only subscription, after a half-price trial period, is $32.50 per month. … That’s actually a little less than the $35 per four weeks the Times announced it will charge for an all-access digital pass. So unless you are deeply into the Internet and saving trees, you can get the Sunday paper as a freebie if you also want all-digital access. For print readers who are using trial offers or otherwise wavering on renewing, the new digital deal creates a nice incentive to continue a print subscription. The structure should shore up paid circulation numbers (which have been falling the last several years) and bolster circulation revenues (off slightly the last several quarters).” (Poynter.org, March 17, 2011)

Jack Shafer: “The pricing scheme and process by which the paper evicts its millions of squatters doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to increase revenues appreciably. If it does that, I’ll be happy to call it a success.” (Slate, March 17, 2011)

Felix Salmon: “The paywall is certainly being set high enough that a lot of regular readers will not subscribe. These are readers who would normally link to the NYT from their blogs, who would tweet NYT articles, who would post those articles on Facebook, and so on. As a result, not only will traffic from these readers decline, but so will all their referral traffic, too. The NYT makes more than $300 million a year in digital ad revenue, so even a modest decline in pageviews, relative to what the site could have generated sans paywall, can mean many millions of dollars foregone.” (Reuters, March 17, 2011)

Danny Sullivan: “I struggle to understand who exactly among the ‘freeloaders’ out there, as viewers to newspaper web sites are sometimes considered, just because viewing ads isn’t enough, are going to convert to this new paywall scheme. I’d assume there are some people who go to the NYT site each day, as their starting point, and consume so many articles that they’d like to read with unfettered access. But then I’m supposed to believe that these hyper-internet based readers are also apparently ignorant of using Google and social media, right? These are people who only know how to get online, type into www.nytimes.com, and when the paywall screen goes up, they’ll decide gulp — I need to pay?” (Daggle, March 17, 2011)

Ken Doctor: “It’s the bumpers — those who do run into the fence and don’t pay up — who are the big concern of the Times. If they are bumping, they’re consuming a significant number of pages per month. They’re news readers. So figuring out their behavior after they bump is key. Do they use another browser or account to get more articles? Do they go off to competitive national/global news sites? Which ones? Do they come back the following month and bump again? Or do they say ‘forget the Times — I’m going elsewhere’ and mean it? This is the group that offers the Times the greatest potential of new digital customers, on the upside, and would be terrible to lose, on the downside.” (Nieman Journalism Lab, March 17, 2011)

Alan Mutter: “Unique among its fellow publishers, the Times is likely to be able to assemble a critical mass of paying customers because of the exceptional nature of its audience. … Most newspapers in the rest of [the] country lack the substantial body of compelling, exclusive content and the unparalleled concentration of wealthy readers that are enjoyed by the Times. What the publishers do have, however, are any number of local broadcasters and other online competitors who will be only too happy to reprise, re-report or otherwise repurpose the stories for which the newspapers hope to charge.” (Reflections of a Newsosaur, March 18, 2011)

Bill Grueskin: “All those who say the paywall won’t work, or that it will, don’t know. They’re making it up. Some of these are the same people who moaned a few years ago about how WSJ.com was cutting itself off from the Internet. And so far, we haven’t seen any signs that WSJ’s current owner is less enamored of pay walls than its former one.” (paidContent, March 18, 2011)

Correction: This post originally said that the 454,000 digital subscribers encompasses all of The New York Times Co.’s websites, but it’s only for The New York Times and International Herald Tribune. The vast majority of that figure is Times subscribers.

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