The New York Times Paywall

Whenever I’m talking to someone who believes that only chumps pay for digital content (Dude, why do you pay for music?), I think about street performers. Have you ever dropped a dollar in the cigar box in front of that cellist in Harvard Square? Yeah? Well what kind of a dope are you? That guy would’ve kept playing with or without your money. Sucker.

Like a lot of people, I was sad to see the New York Times turn off free iPhone access for all articles, but I had to concede that you can’t really expect a company to give away its primary source of revenue forever. I knew this day would come. I had expected a barbed wire fence to go up around the paper, so I’ve been impressed with the relatively enlightened approach that they’ve taken.

My brother just sent me this article called How The New York Times Paywall Is Working. It does a good job of explaining the difference between a gentle paywall (think “please”) and a fierce paywall (think barbed wire). It’s easy to saunter past the gentle paywall, and a lot of hard core geeks are going to laugh in your face. But ultimately that’s the one that’s going to work. The Times is running a great big experiment to see if the gentle paywall will work. And good for them.

There’s a theory about taxation that says people, on average, will pay what they think they should pay. If they think they’re getting screwed, they use fraud and willful neglect to limit what the government can collect. If they’re getting a good deal, so the theory goes, enough reasonable people will pay up to let the enterprise keep rolling. It may well be that the United States is going through its own New York Times-like convulsion (Dude, why do you pay for government?).

Call me an optimist, but I think enough reasonable people can recognize a good deal when they see one. Transparency serves everyone eventually, but it does take a while for the lessons to come home. As Washington remarked to Lafayette, “It is to be regretted, I confess, that democratical states must always feel before they can see. It is this that makes their government slow, but the people will be right at last.”

I’m convinced that almost all content will shift to this sort of honor system. The New York Times, like the US government, will be leaner, but it will be solvent and functional.

Then again, it might work more like this old Monty Python sketch in which Mr. Ford from the orphanage (Terry Jones) tries to convince a puzzled merchant banker (John Cleese) to give him a pound for charity.

Banker: I’m awfully sorry I don’t understand. Can you just explain exactly what you want.

Mr Ford: Well, I want you to give me a pound, and then I go away and give it to the orphans.

Banker: Yes?

Mr Ford: Well, that’s it.

Banker: No, no, no, I don’t follow this at all, I mean, I don’t want to seem stupid but it looks to me as though I’m a pound down on the whole deal.

Civilization is for suckers.