So let’s all agree upfront that The New York Times has completely screwed up this paywall thing. Take your choice: it’s too complicated (“like the French tax system”) or it’s too easy to game (“simply pretend to be Googlebot”) or it’s really not a wall per se (“I call it a fence because it is climbable and purposely porous”) or it was doomed from the start (“I was going to hate this paywall no matter what the NYT did”). And as has also been noted, it’s cheaper to buy a paper subscription and get digital for free than to go digital only, which is counter-intuitive at first (there is logic behind it: Apple’s 30%).
My take — it doesn’t matter. What does matter it was happens next, after the launch. At that point, the Times will do one of two things, either stand firm with what it’s got (regardless of the data) or iterate like crazy to try to figure out what will work. The first time the Times went paywall, it ended up getting at least as much criticism as this time and very quickly took down the wall. But that would be the wrong answer.
I realized a few years ago that big companies always fail at launching social sites because those sites need to be iterated on. When Facebook was just Mark in his dorm room, he could change things day after day without any attention until he got it right; after all, who cares about some college kid and his little site? But when Google launched Wave (or Yahoo launched 360 or for that matter, Fox re-launched MySpace) it was all with the glare of millions of commentators picking apart every little nuance. Too much attention dooms a site to failure before it ever has a chance to succeed.
I, for one, am rooting for the Times to figure it out, which to me means not paying attention to all of us bloggers (except for me!). Flickr started with large numbers of privacy levels and soon realized it was just about friends or family. Twitter focused way too much on SMS before realizing it was about messaging, not the medium. There is a model that will work for the Times too and I hope it takes the time to find it. The industry needs a pay model or some sort or another.
(Link love to friend of the show Michael Sippey for the email thread that inspired this post)