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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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,” 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 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?

What to read next
Ken Doctor    Aug. 25, 2014
“Things” editor, distribution editor, correspondent for progress — as newsrooms change, so do the ways they organize their human resources.
  • Bobbie Johnson

    I suspect your definition of “big news” is based on a broad, industry-insider view of what’s big (a sliding scale that almost inevitably slips lower and lower once you start) rather than the actual, live, real-world impact of the news itself on readers.

    Reports on 9/11 brought vital information to the public that was desperately important to any one of the millions of people with family in NYC and Washington, or flying anywhere in the US, and so on. The Bin Laden killing, while important in its own way, had essentially no risk to any reader, no public information that could save or change lives, no external pressures pushing the clock. It was not world-changing, life-saving big.

    I don’t think the paywall’s the way to go for the NYT, but there’s a difference between must-read and can’t-avoid.

  • Joshua Benton

    I don’t think you need to be an industry insider to view the killing of Osama bin Laden as “big news.”

    The distinction you’re making — between big important news and news that someone might take action on — could be behind the Times’ thinking. By that rule, though, if Barack Obama is assassinated tomorrow, that wouldn’t qualify, right?

    Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with the NYT keeping the paywall up on *every* story — they’ve got a strategy, and there’s nothing wrong with sticking to it. But it would be useful to know whether it really is just public-safety-endangering stories that qualify, or whether they’re making the argument that some NYT stories are so important to (democracy/being an informed citizen/the common conversation/whatever) that they should be read without restrictions.

  • Bobbie Johnson

    Yeah, bad phrasing on my part. All I meant was that their actual given definition of “big news” seemed to focus more on the “horrifying” part rather than the splashy part. Missing out on the shared moment is going to cost them, perhaps in more ways than anyone can really count. But if you’re behind the paywall, you’re not playing the same traffic game as everyone else… and trying to judge those decisions as if it’s apples-to-apples isn’t giving either strategy enough credit or room to breathe.

  • Rocky Agrawal

    The fact that the three major broadcast networks broke into regular programming (a rarity these days) is a sure sign that this was big news.

  • John Zhu

    The premise for this article bothers me a bit. It seems to be based mostly on just two grafs out of the NYT story about its paywall, and most of those two grafs is of Sulzberger offering a hypothetical example for when the NYT might consider taking down the paywall, as an explanation for why he wanted a flexible wall. And in those two grafs, is Sulzberger saying, “We will take down the wall for a really big story, like another 9/11″, or is he saying, “We wanted a flexible paywall so that we can take it down if, say, another 9/11 happens”? That’s an important distinction. The former is saying, “We will do X if Y happens,” while the latter is saying, “We want the ability to do X if Y happens.” Looking at those two grafs, I think it’s much more the latter than the former, and “can” and “will” are very different. I don’t mean to sound like an NYT apologist, but we can’t in all fairness say the NYT isn’t fulfilling a commitment if it never made that commitment to begin with. If those two grafs are the only/best evidence we can offer up for the NYT making the commitment to take down the paywall for really big news, then that evidence is shaky at best.

    One other thing: I don’t think it’s “remarkable” that we don’t have much info on how the NYT makes such decisions. As this article acknowledges, the NYT has said it makes such decisions on a case-by-case basis. Isn’t the whole point of deciding something on a case-by-case basis so that you’re not constrained by a predetermined set of guidelines/rules/procedures?

  • Joshua Benton

    John, show me where we said the NYT isn’t fulfilling a commitment.

    The NYT, on multiple occasions, pointed out that they purposefully built into its paywall the ability to let people in for free when there’s a big breaking story.

    We had a *very* big breaking story yesterday, about as big a breaking story as you could imagine, and the NYT chose not to use that ability. That’s worth noting.

    Again, there’s *absolutely* nothing wrong with that choice. In fact, if I were running the NYT, I’d probably *never* use such a capability — the paywall has enough holes as it is. But it’s worth noting that, after pointing out that they had that capability, they chose not to use it. It’s also worth noting that the day of the month is apparently a factor in that decision. That’s interesting!

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  • John Zhu

    Josh, respectfully, let’s not play the “where does that phrase appear in the story”, invoke-the-strawman game, since we know one can easily imply something without coming out and saying it. Bottom line: When reading this story, I felt that I was being steered toward the conclusion that the NYT said it would do X in the event of Y, and then when Y actually happened, the NYT didn’t do X. You can disagree, and perhaps I’m misreading the tone of the story (in which case I retract the criticism), but for me, here are a couple things that made me feel I was being pretty clearly led toward that conclusion:

    1. Conflating, through the structure of the story, the ABILITY to let people read big breaking news for free with the POLICY to let people read big breaking news for free. The story positions the Sulzberger statement, which addresses the ability but not really the policy for paywall exemption, directly in front of the statement “Last night’s news about the death of Osama bin Laden would seem to qualify as one of those big must-read stories.” The result is the classic “set ‘em up, knock ‘em down” juxtaposition, but in this case, the setup was more about the ability (“we can let people read big breaking news for free”), while the knock-down seems to have sidestepped over to the policy side of the issue (“we will let people read big breaking news for free”).

    2. The final sentence: “If Osama’s demise didn’t make the cut, what story would?” Obviously, the appropriate response to this rhetorical question is supposed to be: The Osama coverage should’ve met the paywall exemption criteria. But again, in the absence of any real info on the criteria the NYT uses in making such a decision (something acknowledged in this post itself), you have no real basis upon which to gauge whether the Osama story should have been a shoo-in for paywall exemption since you don’t know how big a part of the equation a story’s status as “big breaking news” is.

    You’re correct that there are some interesting aspects to the NYT’s decision in this case, and you can certainly point that out. However, I just felt that this story was saying more than, “Hmm, interesting.” It was more like, “Hmm, interesting (wink wink).”

  • Joshua Benton

    John, respectfully, I happen to know for a *fact* that you’re reading in an implication that isn’t there, because I edited this story and I personally believe the *opposite* of what you’re claiming we’re secretly implying.

    As I said, if I were Arthur Sulzberger, I wouldn’t *ever* make exceptions for big stories. It’s not as if there was a single person who didn’t find out about Osama because the NYT didn’t open the gates all the way.

    You can read whatever you’d like into it, but I’m telling you that we are very nerdily interested in just about every element of the mechanics of the NYT paywall. From the moment they started volunteering info about the ability to make exceptions for big breaking news, we started wondering: How will they decide? Who will decide? We tried to get answers to these questions and haven’t been able to, beyond what you see here.

    So, without any knowledge of the policy here, the best evidence we have is yesterday’s actual fact on the ground: that in this case, with what by everyone’s definition is one of the biggest breaking news stories of the past decade, they decided not to change.

    And, frankly, if they’re not going to do it on a story this big, then either (a) they’re not going to do it very much at all, or (b) something other “bigness” is the driving factor (as Bobbie Johnson suggested earlier), because it doesn’t get much “bigger.” That’s why “if not now, when?” is a perfectly legitimate question.

  • John Zhu

    Josh, thank you for the clarification. Had the content of the last couple paragraphs of your reply been in the original post, it probably would’ve gone a long way toward preventing my misread of the tone of the story, since it would’ve been much more clearly a “What does the NYT’s action tell us about its paywall exemption policy” angle rather than “The NYT didn’t take down the paywall even though it could have”. Nonetheless, since you are the one with first-hand knowledge of how the story developed, and given that you guys have always been pretty transparent about how your operate at Nieman Lab, I have no problem taking your word for it and retracting my criticism. My bad.

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