Next Monday, The New York Times will finally do what for over a year it has been promising to do -- erect a paywall around its content on the web. But as details of the plan have emerged this past week, it looks to be one of the strangest, and leakiest, paywalls in the history of online content.
In fact, you might call this a voluntary paywall, because it will apparently be so easy to circumvent there is no reason any moderately tech-savvy consumer should ever have to pay anything at all.
One of the best places in the nation to evaluate how the Times' experiment plays out will be right here in the Bay Area, which has long been the second-best subscription market for print version of the newspaper, and also is of course the center of the universe when it comes to technology innovations.
According to various reports, including from the Times itself, here is how the paywall system will work:
* It is a content metering system, similar to those used by other newspapers like the Financial Times. In this case, the first 20 articles you read online each month will be free.
* In order to access more content each month, you have to subscribe at $15 every four weeks for a bundle that allows you to visit the Times from your laptop, desktop or smartphone. For $5 more, you can also get there via your iPad or other tablet device. Finally, there is a Rolls Royce option, whereby you pay $35 per four weeks for "all digital access," although its unclear to me what other options there are beyond laptops, desktops, smartphone or tablets.
* Print subscribers do not have to pay anything additional for their digital access.
* Among the many loopholes in the new system, excluded from the paywall will be breaking news, section home pages, and incoming traffic via Google or social media like Facebook or Twitter, which cumulatively accounts for roughly 25 percent of the Times traffic these days.
* Another way to avoid paying is to use more than one email account or online identity.
* If you use multiple browsers, the cookies placed on your visits by the Times servers will allow you 20 visits per browser every four weeks -- if you use Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer, for example, that means 60 free visits instead of 20.
* Or, easiest of all, just delete your cookies whenever you reach the limit. Go back to go every time.
Other loopholes exist as well. There are solutions to all of these issues, but the Times doesn't want to risk driving its online readers away, it just wants to persuade some of them to start paying something for the privilege of reading the leading newspaper in the country.
But the truth is that paywalls have never functioned very well to keep out tech-savvy readers. Take the Wall Street Journal for example. If you enter the exact headline of a Journal article into a search field such as that on Google -- presto! the entire article pops up, free as a bird.
For example, try this one: New York Times Readies Pay Wall.
The underlying problem here is that the Internet is not meant to function as a world of walled gardens; it is first and foremost a giant sharing protocol that facilitates access to just about any kind of information you desire.
Hitting up against a paywall causes most users, therefore, to just bounce away to somewhere else, never to return.
At the same time, producing great journalism (or even crummy journalism) is expensive, which is why newspapers like the Times have been struggling so hard to find a solution to the formulation attributed to the Bay Area's Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog -- "Information wants to be free."