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That was quick: Four lines of code is all it takes for The New York Times’ paywall to come tumbling down

The New York Times paywall is costing the newspaper $40-$50 million to design and construct, Bloomberg has reported.

And it can be defeated through four lines of Javascript.

That fact is both the problem and the opportunity of a leaky paywall. There is no one consistent, workable price for online news content. For the vast majority of people who read a news site, the price they’re willing to pay is zero; for a few, it’s something more. The key question of the Times paywall — and of any paywall, really — is how to maximize the revenue generated from those two extremes and the various gradations in between.

The Times’ approach is to create a relatively high price point — $15 to $35 a month, depending on the package — for those willing to pay. For those who are very casual fly-by readers — those who read fewer than 20 articles a month — the site remains free, and the Times makes money from advertising. And for those in the middle — readers who lack the brand loyalty to want to pay, but nonetheless like to see Times stories pop up in their Twitter feed — the social media “leak” in the paywall will keep letting them in for ads.

That kind of nuance makes for a much more precise instrument than a blunt-force paywall. But it also puts the onus on you to get all that nuance right. Get it wrong and you risk angering readers — or letting would-be paying customers in for free.

The Times paywall doesn’t launch in the United States for another week; the paper has plenty of time to plug this particular Javascript vulnerability, which goes by the name NYTClean, if it wants to. But the real question is: Is this a hole they really want closed? Or is this one of the intentional leaks in the wall?

The parable of NYTClean

<nerdy interlude>

In my piece Thursday looking at the paywall — currently only live in Canada — I noted that, when you reach your 20-article limit and try to read more, the contraband article actually loads just fine in your browser — it’s just quickly covered by an overlay obscuring the article and reminding you to pay up:

The full text of the article is still visible in the page source. And as I mentioned in responding to a commenter — and as is evident to anyone who can right-click on a page and choose “Inspect Element” — the overlay is nothing more than a little CSS and Javascript.

Unfortunately for the Times, there are plenty of popular (or popular-among-nerds) tools that tactically remove little bits of CSS and Javascript. There’s Greasemonkey, there’s Stylish — not to mention the ease with which a browser extension in Firefox, Chrome, or Safari can be built to strip out code. As I wrote:

…not to get too far into it (although many bearded people will in the coming days, I can assure you), but yeah, as far as I can tell it’s just a set of divs generated by some javascript. Although I couldn’t quickly find that script in any of the linked .js files, certainly someone nerdier than me will.

So an attempt at a set of Firefox/Chrome/Safari extensions named FreeNYT can’t be too far off. Although I’m sure the Times has already thought of some creative things to counter that too.

Well, consider the first shot in the NYT paywall battle fired. Canadian coder David Hayes has just released NYTClean, a bookmarklet that, in one click, tears down the Times’ paywall.

“Released” is probably even a little strong — it makes it sound like there was an extended development process. All NYTClean does is call four measly lines of Javascript that hide a couple <div>s and turn page scrolling back on. It barely even qualifies as a hack. But it allows you access to any New York Times story, even when you’re past the monthly limit. (I just tested it out with a Canadian proxy server — works just like it says.)

</nerdy interlude>

(Obligatory note: I think the Times is right to ask regular readers to pay, and I think their paywall is basically well designed. Me, I just became a print subscriber last week, using the Frank Rich Discount. Support your local journalist!)

Leakiness: a bug and a feature

Now, the Times paywall is, to a certain extent, defined by its leakiness. The various holes — external links from social media and search biggest among them — are no accident; they’re the result of some (correct, I say) thinking about hitting the right balance between fly-by and dedicated readers, between those who come in the front door and others who arrive from the side.

But the tradeoff for those holes is that they’re designed to be a pain to use if you’re a dedicated NYT reader. Click an occasional Times link when it comes up in your Twitter stream? No problem. But if you’re the kind of person who goes to nytimes.com every morning and clicks on four or five articles, you’ll quickly find it’s a big pain to go search for a headline in Google or Twitter every time you want to read another David Carr piece. (A similar workaround has existed for Wall Street Journal stories behind its paywall for years, but it’s doubtful anyone other than the most desperate reader has ever used it much.)

This CSS-and-Javascript hole, however, isn’t difficult to use at all. One drag into your bookmark bar, then one click whenever you hit a blocked article.

And yet this workaround is so blindingly obvious to anyone who’s ever worked with code that it’s difficult to imagine it didn’t come up in the paywall planning process. The other major news paywalls — WSJ, FT, The Economist — don’t actually send the entire forbidden article to your browser, then try cover it up with a couple lines of easily reversible code. They just hit you with a message saying, in effect, “Sorry, pay up here” whenever you stray past the free zone.

And that leakiness is actually a defensible choice, I think, on the Times’ part. Imagine a Venn diagram with two circles. One represents all the people on the Internet who might be convinced to pay for nytimes.com. The other represents all the people on the Internet who (a) know how to install a bookmarklet or (b) have read a Cory Doctorow novel. Do you really see a big overlap between the two? If someone is absolutely certain to never pay for the NYT, then it makes sense to squeeze a little extra advertising revenue out of them on the rare occasions when a link sends them to nytimes.com.

The problem with that model, though, is that it assumes inefficiency. It assumes that the happy-to-pay crowd (or the grudgingly-will-pay crowd) never find out about the workarounds — or at least that the workarounds remain complicated enough that they won’t want to bother. One click, though, ain’t all that complicated.

And that nudge-nudge approach to security through obscurity also assumes that the Times will be, at some level, okay with people using workarounds. It’s a tough balance: tolerating them so long as they boost advertising revenue and continue to give people the impression nytimes.com is available to them; breaking them when they prove to be too popular among people who might otherwise pay.

To get an idea what that balance looks like, check out statements from two top Times officials in the past few days. First, Eileen Murphy, NYT vice president of corporate communications, talking to the Canadian Press:

She said the paper will be watching for attempts to circumvent the digital subscription system and the limits in place, like if Twitter users tweeted links to the entire paper.

“If it was something blatant…that is likely something that we would make an effort to go after,” Murphy said.

“If there was some real attempt to game the system in some way that was not appropriate it’s something we would certainly look at.”

Psst…if you’re looking for someone who tweets a whole bunch of links to NYT content, I know a guy.

Or Martin Nisenholtz, in his interview with Peter Kafka:

…we want to make sure that we’re not being gamed, to the extent that we can be…We’re obviously going to be vigilant over the next couple of months, in looking at the ways that people are doing that…

I don’t think we’re going to spend enormous resources to go tracking people down. But at the same time, we’re going to obviously work to see where the source of these workarounds are, and work to close them off, if they become substantive enough.

But in looking at the research that we did, we expect [paywall jumpers] to be a very significant minority, a small, small number of people. When you look at your Twitter feed, based on the people you follow, it probably seems like it’s looming very large. But in the scheme of things, among people who don’t live in Silicon Valley or don’t cover it, the vast majority of people do not have this on their minds.

That last bit gets at the issue: You can afford to let nerds game your system. You probably want them to game your system, because they (a) are unlikely to pay, (b) generate ad revenue, and (c) are more likely to share your content than most.

The danger is when it becomes easy for non-nerds to do it. And that’s the risk of any leaky paywall — the risk that you might calibrate the holes incorrectly and let too many of your would-be subscribers through. Something like NYTClean — or the many tools that will soon follow it — could be the kind of thing that tips the balance in a way that hurts the Times.

                                   
What to read next
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Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • Anonymous

    As to -
    “Did they ever give the print edition away for free?”
    YES; my local library always had a FREE copy available.

    Likewise, at the library there were always current (and past) copies of Time, Newsweek, (sic), US News, etc…

    Truth to power!

    In short, the NY Times – the MSM (now) bearded grey lady was easily hacked… OFF.

  • Anonymous

    Please NY Times, I hope you shut off commenting from non-customers.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, your library pays for it.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, your library pays for it.

  • PMM

    Another thing The Times could try is more decent, honest, unbiased reporting, and truth. Maybe then their customers might continue buying newspapers. Just a thought.

  • zing

    wow, uses a mac. embarrassing display ignorance along with leaky logic…

  • Mark_Boston

    You speak as if you are accessing some cache of reality/truth. The NYT is a source of pro-western propaganda. Historically, such propaganda is disseminated freely. It is no wonder that it can be hacked by 4 lines of code. The real truth is heavily guarded/defended, as is evidenced by the reaction to the Wikileaks disclosures.

  • Kodrik

    Their protection is simple enough that they can change a few line of code every week forcing “hackers” to rewrite their exploits on a weekly basis. Will the average joe google a new NYTclean every week or wait for a hack to come out to read the paper again, i doubt it.
    The problem with a more complex protection system is that when it’s hacked, it’s work to make it secure again.
    The NYT could even easily write a program to modify it’s simple security system every day automatically to prevent the average Joe to access it or rely on third part tools. More competent people will just look find a way around every day but it’s a very small portion of their readers.
    I am personally impressed with their solution, it’s very practical

  • Arianna

    If someone can’t create media that is pure ad revenue, they are surely incompetent at media also.

  • Rather

    you don’t pay for accuracy, the media pays for inaccuracy! Only reliability and integrity will gain consumer confidence and ad revenue.

  • http://twitter.com/William_Weeks William Weeks

    A fool and his money are soon parted. It is good business practice to have a portion of customers to pay extra due to not caring or ignorance. BTW I have some water in a bottle for sale.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DSRHINICHYK7PY27XTKIPQI6BM tony d

    Or they just are crowd sourcing the process of finding holes.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DSRHINICHYK7PY27XTKIPQI6BM tony d

    Or they just are crowd sourcing the process of finding holes.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DSRHINICHYK7PY27XTKIPQI6BM tony d

    Or they just are crowd sourcing the process of finding holes.

  • http://twitter.com/nickkauf Nick Kaufmann

    oh snap!

  • Mark P

    It does cost a lot of money to do things right. Unfortunately the NYT and the LAT are more concerned about First to Publish, and more Column Inches, not quality.

    News _is_ free. All facts are. Poor reporting is also free. When a paywall obstructs poor reporting, people don’t rush to pay for the incompetent illiterate non-journalism.

    they go elsewhere.

    Best of luck to the NYT, LAT, and any other hacks that want to pretend they are still the 4th estate. History has passed you by.

  • Mark P

    It does cost a lot of money to do things right. Unfortunately the NYT and the LAT are more concerned about First to Publish, and more Column Inches, not quality.

    News _is_ free. All facts are. Poor reporting is also free. When a paywall obstructs poor reporting, people don’t rush to pay for the incompetent illiterate non-journalism.

    they go elsewhere.

    Best of luck to the NYT, LAT, and any other hacks that want to pretend they are still the 4th estate. History has passed you by.

  • Anonymous

    LMAO@ # /# ;p

  • Anonymous

    LMAO@ # /# ;p

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bz-Pepple/100002195071063 Bz Pepple

    I disagree with you. It dos not make sense that whats on the web should be free and only apps should be paid for. There is no logic behind those rules. Creating a business model for online content is very tricky and I have to applaud a lot of companies for sticking it out especially thru the thin.

    You have to remember these companies are not making insane profits. A lot of newspapers are actually losing money. So I dont blame them when they try to make revenue.

    And comparing NYT to netflis is really apples to oranges. Netflix sells other peoples content while NYT is a publisher that produces their own content

  • http://twitter.com/RanjiGoswami Media Observer

    ‘Psst…if you’re looking for someone who tweets a whole bunch of links to NYT content, I know a guy.’

    Love it…Hope FT takes notice

  • http://www.charlesredell.com/ Charles

    and who exactly is accurate that the hordes are going to rush to pay?

  • http://www.charlesredell.com/ Charles

    and who exactly is accurate that the hordes are going to rush to pay?

  • http://www.charlesredell.com/ Charles

    and who exactly is accurate that the hordes are going to rush to pay?

  • http://www.charlesredell.com/ Charles

    and who exactly is accurate that the hordes are going to rush to pay?

  • http://www.charlesredell.com/ Charles

    and who exactly is accurate that the hordes are going to rush to pay?

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  • RCharles

    But with a print ad I remain anonymous while an ad posted via a browser can be tailored to the user, especially if the server site has been tracking the user’s interest profile.

  • Batman

    Just click on the news article you want to read and wait for it to load and hit the stop button on your browser before the overlay loads. I do that shit all the time

  • Amendjeanmarie

    Nudge-nudge quoted glad to know what sense inferred here this use.

  • Anonymous

    Die you communist rag, die.

  • Guest

    You could just surf the internet with Opera. You can turn off all JavaScript and Flash. Saves mountains of load time, advertising headaches, etc.

  • Guest

    then there’s ‘view source’….

  • Dyinman

    Not to mention you can go to your browser’s file menu and hit “Print” and you’ll get the full article. Even an untrained monkey could do that.

  • Nicole

    40-50 million… unbelievable. Here I was foolishly under the impression that we were learning how not to spend ridiculous amounts of money on things without considering the consequences.

    As someone who has run a web development company for over a decade, all I could do was sigh at the stupidity of ANY company which would pay so much for something so minor. Not only is the developer who did that ‘paywall’ laughing all the way to the bank, but apparently they aren’t that good at doing simple programming either. Reading the linked article describing the paywall and the 700 or so glitches that were discovered during testing. 700 glitches that need fixing… on a Javascript payment project? LOL, in the industry we’d call that ‘padding the hours.’ There never should have been that many glitches to fix, but they’re a good excuse to keep billing.

    Either someone at NYT is really missing the boat on what is a good amount to spend on projects, or there is some moving around of money going on.

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  • http://www.moviein3d.net Caitlin

    The problem with these tools to get around paywalls is that it is a cat and mouse game, I am still to find a tool to get around the Wall Street Journal paywall, there used to be one but it doesn’t work anymore.

    I rather visiting another newspaper really, it is not as if The New York Times is the only quality newspaper out there, in the end I will save time reading CBSNews online and I will not be cheating anyone.

  • mikeb

    The paywall serves it’s purpose extremely well. It gets actual dedicated users to pay up for an uninterrupted experience but the more technical side to it is…

    A little background-
    The reason why sites can’t just corral their content behind a wall and require you to login is Google and their spiders. Google doesn’t have an account so when their spiders come in and look at the article, they won’t find it if it were behind a “hard” wall. No google access = less relevancy = less traffic = less advertising monies.

    But surely with 50M spent on development, they could have easily let Google through or give Google unfiltered access! Why of course they can! The reason they couldn’t implement it is… Google again! Google requires that when they visit a page, it should have the same content as any user out there. If there was a “hard” wall, then they would have to serve up the login page to Google which would be representative of a huge chunk of internet users. If this happens, Google won’t find any content! If they serve up a different version specifically for Google, then they are in violation of Google’s requirements which is grounds for them to then devalue the site and again, they lose much more in advertising than what they could have gained through subscription. Remember this already happened before with another news site!

    So the option to go with a “soft” wall keeps advertisers AND Google happy. Maybe it doesn’t make you happy but like has been said before, you are not their main customer.

    It’s so simple, I agree it didn’t cost much to implement at all – but I’m willing to bet the research that went behind is was substantial. This was only one of the solutions they considered and in my opinion, its a smart and safe position. It doesn’t force anyone’s hands except yours.

  • Ripp Doff

    Perhaps the people who are so eager to cheat the NYTimes (and other sites) by breaking their locks should consider the implications of their shoplifting. Ignoring the rights of others causes all our rights to vanish. Do you want people stealing from you just because they can?

  • Ripp Doff

    Perhaps the people who are so eager to cheat the NYTimes (and other sites) by breaking their locks should consider the implications of their shoplifting. Ignoring the rights of others causes all our rights to vanish. Do you want people stealing from you just because they can?

  • Next In Line

    i could of swore it read 4 lines of coke..i must be seeing things.

  • uh, yeah

    The presumption is that the NYT is the sole source of “facts”, when it is not. It is only the interpretation of the facts by NYT staffers.

    I read my news using the Google aggregator Google News. Any major news story is carried by thousands of other outlets. I hardly think that the NYT offers that singular defining point-of-view that all the others are missing.

    I do my own thinking…I hardly need the NYT to tell me what to think based on the widely available facts.

  • Jon404

    So. I was in Starbucks, Del Mar, CA the other day, sitting next to a French-Israeli guy who was following tweets streaming in from Libya and Syria. And that was the news, tweets, not the NYT. How long will it take someone to create a new web newspaper based on tweets? Or has it already happened? I’m 67, and I’m very curious to hear from younger people whether you read the NYT at all, or even bother to read it for free at Starbucks…

  • http://twitter.com/qages winnie the pooh

    Simply, I always pass by the new york times because I don’t seem to get this free 20 page views, I get 0. I’m always greeted by a pay up here message, and frankly I can’t afford to spend money on something I can get for free elsewhere.

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  • James

    that’s why NY Times has charge a $15 – $35 access fee: to pay for this foobar.

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