How Much Demand Will There Be for Circumventing New York Times Paywall?

NYTimes.com, fully free for a few more days

A Forbes.com article by Jeff Bercovici discusses the New York Times‘s plan to shut down a rogue Twitter feed called FreeNYTimes, which is meant to circumvent the Times‘s upcoming metered model (some people call it a paywall). As Bercovici writes:

It’s clever, but it’s not kosher. “We have asked Twitter to disable this feed as it is in violation of our trademark,” says a Times spokeswoman. She adds that the paper has been monitoring and has already blown the whistle on other violations. … I also asked her about NYTClean, a bookmark that defeats the paywall with the aid of four lines of code. The response: “As we have said previously, as with any paid product, we expect that there will be some percentage of people who will find ways around our digital subscriptions. We will continue to monitor the situation but plan no changes to the programming or paywall structure in advance of our global launch on March 28th.”

Well, of course I clicked on the FreeNYTimes feed to see how many people are following it. (Yes, I have a bit of interest in Twitter followship.) And I have to say, I was quite surprised by the number I saw.

Care to take a guess? Go ahead, guess; don’t look at the sentence below.

Okay. As I type these words, at around 6 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, the FreeNYTimes feed has a whopping 152 followers. Am guessing this doesn’t say anything too meaningful about demand for free NYTimes.com content, but still, I’m surprised.

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COMMENTS: 25


  1. Jon says:

    It doesn’t say anything meaningful about the demand for free access to the NY Times. Few people want EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE from the Times to clog their Twitter feed via this account. Many, many more will simply search for the account @FreeNYTimes when they find a specific article they’d like to read in its entirety, thus sidestepping the need to follow the account.

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    • kahliabear says:

      Exactly, Jon. I’m not following it already because I didn’t know about it, but now that I do, I still won’t precisely because I have no desire to see *everything* in my feed.

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  2. rmw26 says:

    I added several knuckleheads who openly admitted having 100% WTP on the paywall, hoping that collection will result in not missing much. Its twitter for crying out loud.

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  3. peter says:

    It is still free this month, right? Seems like the number of follows wouldn’t go up until people actually start running into the article limit.

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  4. lee says:

    the bookmarklet will be much more popular among technophiles than the twitter feed will be. no reason to have to search for individual articles you want through it.

    besides, why should the times have any right to take down somebody’s feed? if you don’t like it, change the policy.

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  5. Max says:

    I think the Forbes article got it wrong. this is the feed that’s been in the news for trying to circumvent the paywall: http://twitter.com/#!/freeNYT

    It has quite a few more followers. Not an alarming amount, but certainly not the tiny number you based this post on.

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  6. Free Wally says:

    Here is somebody’s twitter feed of TimesWire links.

    https://twitter.com/timeswiretap

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  7. Thomas Miller says:

    As of now Times is still free with noneed to follow this Twitter site. If still up when paywall begins those numbers will surely change

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  8. Mark says:

    I am a Canadian and the NYTimes has already put up the paywall in Canada first before rolling it out too the rest of the world on the 28th, we have already found many good ways of getting around the paywall (for the time-being at least), one crafty Canadian has created a 4 line peace of script that you can just put into your IE’s bookmarks bar and when you bump up to the paywall but you just click the bookmark and you can read the entire article. The almost easier way to maneuver around the wall is just to clear your cache, bingo another 20 articles.

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    • Dave says:

      I’m told that blocking cookies also works (I’m the crafty Canadian who made NYTClean) but clearing cookies makes the NYT’s analytics and advertising less effective. Whereas my bookmarklet just hides the subscription popup and shows the article.

      I think the NYT is in a tough position in that their status as a paper of record needs people to be able to see the content, but their income stream is dependent on restricting access to that content.

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  9. Alicia in GA says:

    I agree with Jon that number of Followers doesn’t mean much. I don’t follow @FreeNYTimes, but:
    - I put it in my News List: http://twitter.com/#!/AliciaTAllen/news
    - My news list goes into my daily newspaper http://paper.li/AliciaTAllen/news
    - I can search Tweets when I want an article (true with or without @FreeNYTimes)

    So that’s three ways I will use their Tweets, without following.

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  10. Alison says:

    I think the low number of followers says more about the NYTimes’ base’s general use of twitter than anything else.

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    • bob says:

      I agree 100%. When people are interested in content behind a pay wall, piracy emerges. Although this isn’t piracy, it fills the same role. The lack of interest in “pirating” content for free indicates there may be a lack of interest in paying for content.

      I don’t know how they justify the cost anyway? They eliminate the cost of printing and distributing, plus they’ll still have ads. I quit going to the NYT when they put up the registration wall years ago. Paying is ludicrous to me.

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  11. Mike O. says:

    You’re looking at the wrong one. @freenyt has 3,940 followers with almost a week to go before the paywall goes up.

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  12. brandon says:

    I must say I congratulate ya’ll on now having an ad-free, full RSS feed. I was able to finally remove my “FreakReader” App from the app store. Love the feed, and enjoy reading the full feed in my RSS reader.

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  13. brian warden says:

    I think it’s quaint and a bit delusional that NYT thinks this pay-for-news thing will actually work. Virtually no one is going to pay for news. NYT isn’t that good; they’re all reputation. I give this last ditch attempt to stay solvent about a year. Then again, I may be wrong, I often am.

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  14. Lance says:

    I’m from Vancouver and got hit with the Times paywall after breaching the 20-article limit four days into its release (http://j.mp/idX9bb). Trying to circumvent the paywall through the Times’ various Twitter feeds – which are exempt from the 20-article limit – I found a GAPING HOLE in the paywall that doesn’t require even a single line of code!

    By simply APPENDING A STRING such as “?smid=tw-nytimes” after the “.html” of an article’s URL, you are identified as being ‘referred’ from a link on Twitter – which is exempt from the paywall.

    Paywall: http://img10.imageshack.us/img10/9813/nytpaywall1.jpg
    No Paywall: http://img541.imageshack.us/img541/4567/nytpaywall2.jpg

    I’m guessing “smid” = social-media ID; “tw” = Twitter; and “nytimes” is the Twitter handle of the @NYTimes account through which I clicked and which can be replaced with any other Twitter handle or simply any string of text (as the [overly simplistic] paywall does not appear to cross-check Twitter handles in realtime).

    Clicking on a link through the Times’ Facebook page, the string is “?smid=fb-nytimes” – and appending that in works as well, since links shared on Facebook are similarly exempt.

    Playing around with the URLs some more, it looks like the paywall simply tags users with some code that it reads off of the URL through which a user clicks to get to an article.

    For example, clicking into the article “Campaign to Fight Air Pollution in Hong Kong Gets Visual” from the Business section page of the Global Edition, my browser bears the following URL: “http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/business/global/22pollute.html?ref=global&gwh=A830D7C72B256BE83356D7A410E9B1CD”

    The string “ref=global” tells the system I was referred to the article from the Business section page of the NYT Global Edition. The string “gwh=A830D7C72B256BE83356D7A410E9B1CD” identifies me as some user located in Canada who has breached the 20-article limit for the month and pops up the paywall.

    Reloading the page without the “&gwh=A830D7C72B256BE83356D7A410E9B1CD” string, then, strips me of my identity and doesn’t trigger the paywall.

    It’s an appallingly low-tech system and I can only hope the actual paywall isn’t this easy to get around when it is implemented globally later this month – lest the business failure of this flawed system be fallaciously construed as proof of the unworkability of a subscription model for online media.

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  15. David says:

    Just read the NYT website in Firefox with NoScript and… look Ma, no paywall.

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  16. brian warden says:

    I think this is a great example of the type of article you would not be allowed to post if you were still at NYT. Glad you moved!

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  17. Carl Natale says:

    I’m more interested in whether this says anything meaningful about the NYT paywall. Specifically the pricing structure. Is the NYT encouraging the workarounds with their exceptions to paying for access?

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  18. Kate says:

    I think the reason it has so few followers is because the paywall isn’t up yet. I’m not happy about it, I think the paywall is over-priced. (I actually paid for the TimesSelect package way back when, because $7/month for premium content was a good value for me.) However, I got an email this week saying that for the rest of the year I can keep my free access on my account (registered since 2002) as part of a sponsor package by Lincoln. In 2011, I may start looking for ways to circumvent the paywall though.

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  19. ALAN D says:

    I could not believe NYTimes is so stupid!! In order to save some money, vast majority of Americans willing to do anything,
    remember after thanksgiving sale started at 4:00 in the morning, thousands people waiting overnight in our store
    to get the 35% off sale under subzero temp.
    Nytimes forget one thing, more than 75% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, nevertheless, many of them still can’t secure the very basic human needs, food and shelter, here comes 1 in 7 Americans on food stamp and 18% of all US homeowners are in or near foreclosure:
    Under those circumstances, Do any people believe Americans going to buy news, not likely.

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  20. kyle says:

    Nobody from generation y and z really reads the NYT even when it is free. Good bye NYT.

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  21. Mike B says:

    I have a strong suspicion that the NY Times has chosen to adopt an “Airline” (or Magazine) pricing model that ultimately becomes effectively “pay what you wish” only with much more hassle and obfuscation. Yes, people with more money than time will pay the outrageous full price for the service which comes out to $200-700 per year. This probably makes up a sizable fraction who use the paper as their primary news source as well as people who already get a print subscription. People who use Google News or Digg as their primary source of news have signaled that they don’t put much value on any single news outlet so they will get their articles for free. Between these two extremes the NY Times will begin to offer discounts.

    Anyone who has ever purchased a magazine subscription knows that only morons pay the cover price. Search the web and it is trivial to find some offer somewhere for free subscriptions. Buy some flowers, free subscription. New credit card, free subscription. Then there are tones of other deals that offer discounts. Students, old folks, government employees, credit union members, etc all qualify for drastic discounts for print subscriptions, often up to 80% off. Finally there are the official discounts offered by the publication itself. Sign up with this special offer get half off. Sign up for X years and get 75% off. Sign up TODAY and get 6 months free. I suspect that the Times will wholeheartedly embrace such pricing. Their marginal cost is zero so every additional dollar they can earn is a win. They will simply keep hitting people with lower and lower prices until they bite.

    How do I know this well they have already begun. Both my friend and myself have already accepted free subscriptions for the rest of 2011 based on a promotion sponsored by Lincoln cars. I don’t know how we were selected for this, be it random or because we post a lot of comments (making us “content providers” the Times would not want to lose), but I have no doubt that every year I will find some way to extend my free or discounted membership infinitely.

    Personally I wanted to be able to pay for NY Times, but I would have much preferred a general low rate with limited loopholes. My willingness to pay is about $50-$100 a year. Any more and I will begin to investigate ways to get it for free or various discounts including splitting access with friends. However the Times probably calculated that they could hook in most of its wealthy readership with the full price and the vacuum up the remainder with discounts and freebies. It this a good strategy? Probably. Am I disappointed that a major media corporation rejected the opportunity to embrace the small payment from large groups business model, definitely.

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