News used to be behind a paywall, or not. But then a publication figured out how to do both.
I don’t know if we could have done it or not, Paul, but the fact is, maybe it was a lack of imagination, but at least at the time the thinking was very binary. Either you were going to be free or you were going to be pay.
That’s Martin Nisenholtz, former CEO of New York Times Digital and former SVP of Digital Operations at New York Times. He worked at the newspaper from its early experiments with the web back in 1995 until he retired in 2011. The challenge posed to him by in that interview was by Paul Sagan, who asked whether or not the New York Times, when it first launched, could have went entirely behind a paywall like it’s spiritual competitor Wall Street Journal had.
Nisenholtz was pretty insistent that they couldn’t have. That if they moved behind a paywall, nobody would’ve came, and the NYT would not have become the digital force that it is today. Looking at results over the arc of his career, he’s probably right. But he also points to the strict dichotomy of the time. Publications were either free or behind a paywall. It felt as if there were no other choices. At least for the first couple of decades or so.
“Content is king” was a common refrain in the media-driven early web. It was seen as uncouth to charge for content. Content was meant to be free and wildly distributed. So most magazines, newspapers, and online publishers made content on the web freely available and supported by ads, even if their print subscriptions were paid. There were some that bucked the trend though. The earliest example of a paywall on the web is likely the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper that tends to be on the cutting edge of technology thanks to their proximity to Silicon Valley. When they launched in 1994, they charged visitors $5 a month for access.
But The Wall Street Journal was the first major Internet publication to begin charging subscriptions for their online edition when they launched in 1995. The prevailing theory at the time was that The Wall Street Journal was unique in that it targeted businesses rather than individual consumers, and had a reason to go against the grain and go behind a paywall. But most believed that charging for online content risked blocking out one’s potential audience (and their associated ad revenue) all at once.
Some publications experimented with paid sections. Slate, an online only magazine, tried that approach in 1998, offering exclusive content to paid subscribers. The New York Times even tried it at various points, putting exclusive columns, crosswords, and online games behind a special paywall. But by and large, and except for a few, notable paywall exceptions, online news was free in the first two decades of the web.
The Financial Times came online about as early as any other publication, in 1995. Their first website was a brief subset of their print publication; some general information about global financial news. But they quicly experimented with new designs and content, launching version after version as they fleshed out their vision for the web.
In 2002, the Financial Times launched a new redesign that brought even more content to the web. But a section of the site—in-depth information on global businesses, advanced search, and instant access to print content—was moved behind a paywall for digital subscribers. They had plans that ranged from £75 to £200 a year.
But that approach ended up only minimally successful. Publications in the mid-2000’s found themselves stuck in a gordian knot of discovery. With millions of websites to compete with, search was becoming a reliable and widespread, and social media networks were gaining traction. News stories—and the audiences they could bring—spread across the web on the waves of these innovations. But any content behind a paywall wasn’t discoverable. In order to be accessible across the web, content had to be free. But a glut of content had shrunk advertising revenues, making loyal, digital subscribers willing to pay for content the holy grail.
The Financial Times, like most other news organizations, found themselves stuck in the middle of freely available and discoverable open sites and potentially more lucrative but inaccessible paywalls. Until they proposed an alternative, what they called in their initial announcements a “third way.” Starting in 2007, the Financial Times made their content free—with a limit. Visitors to the site were able to read 30 (at launch) articles for free a month. After that, they’d be locked out until the next month unless they were a subscriber. In between, there were all sorts of opportunities to gently nudge readers towards a paid subscription.
It was called the metered model. Every visitor had a certain number of tokens they could feed the meter with each month to access stories. But once the meter was empty, no more reading for free. People could still share articles on social media, and search engines could still pick it up. But recurring readers were expected to pay for the privilege.
In the years that followed its initial launch, the metered model was picked up by several other publications, including the Economicist and a few UK based media companies. But it wasn’t until 2011, in Nisenholtz’s retirement year, that the New York Times would begin to adopt the model—marking it in the process not as simply a pioneering experiment, but a imminent best practice.
In the case of the NYT, they made some modifications. Specifically, they made the metered paywall somewhat more “porous” by design. The NYT paywall initially let users pass through when they came from search engines or social media sites, even if their meter was full for the month. It made content even more findable across the web for most people, but users that came directly to the site were limited to 20 articles a month before they were locked out of future articles and prompted to switch to a subscription.
Over time, that limit tightened—at the NYT, at the Financial Times, and all over the web. Twenty free articles became ten. It became a bit of business calculation: What is the least amount of content that can be offered for free that was still able to drive new paid subscriptions. But the math was often in the favor of publishers. After they launched, The New York TImes saw 20% less page views, but it boosted their subscribers significantly. Within a few months, they had signed on hundreds of thousands of digital subscribers.
And as the model became more proven out, other publications adopted it. By 2013, major publications like the Washington Post and the Telegraph were implementing their own version of the metered paywall. Even Slate, an online magazine who had tried and failed to put their site behind a paywall in the ’90’s, adopted the metered paywall in 2015 for global readers.
As a decade or more has passed since the introduction of the metered paywall, it’s hard not to call it ubiquitious. Any publication not strictly behind a paywall has likely implemented some version of it.