Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Chasing subscriptions over scale, The Athletic wants to turn local sports fandom into a sustainable business — starting in Chicago
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
May 2, 2011, 3:20 p.m.

At the NYT, no paywall exemption for Bin Laden

When The New York Times announced its pay meter back in March, publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. also announced that — along with the many, many other pores and passages the paper had built into its gate — the Times had built into its new system the ability to open the gate for breaking-news stories that were, essentially, must-reads. “Mr. Sulzberger wanted a flexible system,” the paper reported at the time, “one that would allow the company to adjust the limit on the number of free articles as needed — in the case of a big breaking news event, for example.”

Or, as Sulzberger told Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters:

“Let’s imagine there’s a horrifying story like 9/11 again,” [Sulzberger] said in an interview. “We can — with one hit of a button — turn that meter to zero to allow everyone to read everything they want,” he said. “We’re going to learn. We built a system that is flexible.”

Last night’s news about the death of Osama bin Laden would seem to qualify as one of those big must-read stories. So it’s interesting to note that the Times’ coverage of the news — all of its articles and blog posts — remained behind the paper’s gate last night. And they’ll remain there. “There are no current plans to open up the news and features about Bin Laden for free on NYTimes.com,” a Times spokesperson told me. “As you know, readers get 20 articles free each month, and they can access Times content through other means, such as blogs, social media and search.”

The Bin Laden story broke on May 1, just a few hours after all non-subscribing Times readers had seen their monthly 20-article count reset to zero. Barring a big Sunday-morning reading binge, most were probably still at the very beginnings of their monthly allotments. And while “any decision to make any content free on NYTimes.com will be made on a case by case basis,” the spokesperson notes, “in this case in particular, the fact that the story broke on May 1 was certainly a factor.”

The Times’ pay meter is probably the most analyzed edifice in the news industry at the moment. And it’s not as if there were nowhere else online (or on television, or in print) to learn about the bin Laden raid.

Still, it’s remarkable how little we know about how the paywall’s breaking-news caveat works. The notion of stories that are so big that they shouldn’t be paid for — or, more accurately, so big that the Times shouldn’t require people to pay for them — is a complicated, but also crucial, one, particularly considering the careful balance the Times has struck between business interest and public interest in its rhetoric about its pay scheme.

If and when a story is taken from outside the wall, who makes the decision about the exemption? Is it someone on the business side or the editorial side— or a collaboration between both? Is the exemption something that the Times will announce publicly, or something it will simply enact, without comment? And if the day of the month on which a story breaks is a factor, as it was in this case…on what day would a big story become exemption-worthy?

The biggest question, though: If Osama’s demise didn’t make the cut, what story would?

POSTED     May 2, 2011, 3:20 p.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Chasing subscriptions over scale, The Athletic wants to turn local sports fandom into a sustainable business — starting in Chicago
“It’s very easy today to be click-driven and produce articles that don’t have a lot of substance or depth and don’t cost that much to produce, but that dynamic is disappointing for fans who want higher-quality content.”
Hot Pod: We now have new, free rankings to show how podcasts stack up against each other
Plus: Parsing the RadioPublic announcement; premium podcast subscriptions; Bill Simmons oversimplifies things.
BuzzFeed is building a New York-based team to experiment with news video
It is the “center of a Venn diagram” between BuzzFeed Motion Pictures and BuzzFeed News.
What to read next
0
tweets
The Verge launches Circuit Breaker, a gadget blog-as-Facebook page
The Verge is launching a new gadget blog that is built for Facebook. (Articles will also run on The Verge’s website.)
0Millennial-focused local startup Charlotte Agenda is expanding its model to a second city, Raleigh
The North Carolina startup says it’s profitable and is looking to expand its reach — but it’s not seeking outside funding.
0With a scripted daily comedy news show, Mic looks to add a little late night TV to the social video mold
“We don’t just present a bunch of headlines and say what we think. Our videos are chock-full of facts and research.”
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Forbes
The Times of London
American Public Media
Seattle PostGlobe
Mashable
Amazon
ESPN
The Wall Street Journal
Yahoo
The Chronicle of Higher Education
BBC News
Outside.in