The Paywall Problem

The problem is, they don’t work. If you’re just a reader of newspapers (like me) and not an employee, or someone else who relies on the economic viability of news organizations, you may not consider this a problem.

You can find an embarrassment of blog posts and Lifehacker articles on how to be sneaky and outsmart the terrible newspaper paywalls, including but not limited to: using multiple browsers, deleting your cookies regularly, using Google as a proxy, etc., etc., but for many big newspapers you only need to know three words:

Chrome Incognito Mode.

It’s surprising, hilarious, and sad that some of our nation’s most important newspapers think that it’s important to their revenue to build a fence around their content, but not important to make sure the fence is more than ten inches tall. Exhibits A (Washington Post), B (New York Times), and C (Los Angeles Times):Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 1.51.52 PMScreen Shot 2014-03-23 at 1.51.57 PMScreen Shot 2014-03-23 at 1.35.05 PMScreen Shot 2014-03-23 at 1.35.21 PMScreen Shot 2014-03-23 at 1.35.52 PMScreen Shot 2014-03-23 at 1.35.59 PM

All these screenshots were taken Sunday, March 23, 2014, and nothing crazy was done in terms of Internet settings or backdoors (other than using Chrome in Incognito mode). These paywalls are like the Canadian Border Patrol–they’ll let anything through, and apologize for your trouble.

On the other hand, it’s interesting to see how the newspapers whose paywalls aren’t made of Swiss cheese report on businesses, presumably businesses that actually make more than a half-hearted attempt at collecting revenue. Here are the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 1.37.24 PMScreen Shot 2014-03-23 at 1.37.31 PMScreen Shot 2014-03-23 at 1.38.13 PMScreen Shot 2014-03-23 at 1.38.20 PM 

Gee, I wonder why they’ve got their paywalls a little more figured out?

Now let me make this disclaimer: I think working paywalls are a good thing. If free news–excuse me–“content” sites have to make their profit by leading with ad-laden, clickbait garbage like ’27 Incredibly Easy Ways to Spring Clean’:

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 2.04.45 PM

and burying the nation’s top story in small type down-site, I don’t want my intellect to be rotted by this tripe, and I can waste my time by playing outside instead. But good, responsible, productive journalism needs to make money from subscribers, not just ads, or it will not survive. And it will not survive if it allows readers to keep accessing its content for free by pressing Ctrl-Shift-N (or ⌘-Shift-N on a Mac, you’re welcome.) I mean, as long as I can get it for free I’m going to. I’m not a charity and neither are most potential newspaper subscribers. But until newspapers can better protect their content, they’re going to keep firing real news reporters in favor of ‘user-sourced content’, or, worse, drivel-producing, ideologue, glorified bloggers.

Can somebody please explain this to the Web developers of the Washington Post, LA Times, and NY Times? Thanks.

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