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Jan. 29, 2019, 1:12 p.m.
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Why won’t The New Yorker keep you logged in? Mystery: Solved (kind of)

“Right now, there isn’t actually a specific bug that is happening. That’s what’s driving us a little crazy.”

Do you like remembering a username and password and typing them over and over on a tiny mobile screen? If so, I recommend a digital subscription to The New Yorker, which in addition to being probably the world’s greatest magazine is also bafflingly incapable of keeping a paying subscriber logged in. If you don’t believe me, ask Twitter. Representative sample:

To be fair to The New Yorker, it is not the only site that gets complained about. The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times — basically any news site people actually pay to access in significant numbers — also receive their share of complaints from subscribers who can’t stay logged in. But New Yorker login woes are the only ones that have achieved — as NewYorker.com editor Michael Luo put it in a recent interview — meme status. You know, “The ‘New Yorker is terrible’ meme that everyone chimes in on,” he said ruefully.

Over the summer, The New Yorker told Slate its login issue was a bug that had been solved. But several months later, I was still seeing these tweets. So I decided to investigate further.

Before getting on the phone with Luo, I tried logging into my own New Yorker account. When I got into the site, The New Yorker recognized me only as a user, not as a subscriber. It also thought I still lived in New York. I knew I was a subscriber: New print issues keep coming to my house in Cambridge, where I stack them on my coffee table. “I can’t believe this! I’ve been a subscriber for 17 years!” I thought indignantly. “I got my own subscription as soon as I moved out of my parents’ house!”

But then, reaching back into the recesses of my brain, I remembered that I had not been a continuous subscriber for 17 years. I let that first print subscription lapse in 2013 when I had a baby and the increasingly large pile of unread issues began sparking serious guilt. I finally re-upped in 2017, when my second child was old enough that I was reading again, but this time I subscribed using a different email address so that I would be recognized as a new customer and be eligible to get, um, a certain bag. My computer’s password manager had remembered my old email address/password combination, but not the newer, current email/password combination. I eventually found that information and successfully logged into my real — real as in current — subscription.

Even at that point, though, The New Yorker’s site experienced a delay before recognizing that I was a logged-in, paying subscriber. The first story that I clicked on hit me with a paywall. Then, as if seeming to shift slowly into gear, the site sort of visibly shuddered, refreshed, and let me read the story. All of the “please subscribe” messaging on the site, however, remained. Confident that the problem at least was not only me, I was ready to talk with Luo.

“Right now, there isn’t actually a specific bug that is happening,” Luo said. “That’s what’s driving us a little crazy.”

The New Yorker now receives about two-thirds of its revenue from subscribers and, like most news outlets, wants to grow digital subscriptions — so it is a huge priority that the subscriptions function correctly and that the experience is a good one, Luo stressed. This is also, “from a nerd standpoint, a really complicated technical challenge,” as the company tries both to protect customer privacy and make things good for users. But, of course, this is a challenge that many companies solve, so what’s with all the customer complaints in The New Yorker’s instance? A bug last year was indeed responsible for keeping some people from logging into stories (like Ronan Farrow’s Harvey Weinstein investigation) that were getting a ton of traffic; that was fixed. What remains is not one specific bug but, probably more frustratingly, a combination of: Technical fixes, on a long to-do list, that The New Yorker has not yet gotten around to; clunky old Condé Nast technology; user error; and a good measure of “this is just how the internet is.”

For instance, people read New Yorker articles across a wide variety of digital devices — from desktop and mobile, in The New Yorker’s app, from links within newsletters, from links on social media. “If you’re reading a newsletter article on your phone in Gmail, it’ll open a particular browser. If you’re in the iOS default mail app, it’ll open in [Safari]. And if you’re clicking within Twitter or Facebook, they have an in-app browser,” Luo said. “You’re opening each within a specific environment, and each of those environments requires you to log in, and in some cases we just can’t manage how they maintain your login information.”

In other cases, the technology is under The New Yorker’s control. People who subscribe to The New Yorker’s email newsletters and have a paid subscription think that if they click on a link in their email, that link should open in their New Yorker app, which they’re already logged into as a paid subscriber — and that should be possible, Luo said. “That requires some work on our app end that we’d like to get done. That’s the way the Times does it.” It’s just an item on a long to-do list that hasn’t been addressed yet. The company is constantly working on upgrades and fixes, Luo said — for instance, “if we have your email address in records from when you subscribed, it should recognize you and automatically link your subscription so that you don’t have to enter an additional piece of information. Little things like that smooth the process, and we’ve been at work on a lot of those little things, just sort of knocking them off one by one.”

Luo also suggested one other thing that might be fueling some of the Twitter complaints. In recent months, The New Yorker has tightened the paywall. Previously, non-subscribers could access six free articles per month on the website; now, it’s four. The New Yorker Today app used to let you access 10 articles for free; that’s now also down to four. It’s possible that many paying subscribers assumed they were logged in, when they actually were not logged in and were just hitting the paywall sooner than they used to. And a handful had probably never renewed their subscriptions at all, and only remembered that when the paywall popped up.

Finally, The New Yorker is both saddled with/blessed by its relationship with Condé Nast’s web infrastructure. During my call with Luo, I had the experience — similar to the simultaneously satisfying and alarming feeling of going to the doctor for a weird rash and hearing the doctor say “Well that’s weird” — of introducing him to a subscription page on The New Yorker’s site that he said he had never seen before. “I don’t exactly know how this thing works,” he said.

It was, specifically, the “customer care” page of The New Yorker’s site. It’s separate from the “View your profile” page and also must be logged into separately, with a 4-digit code. It’s where you go if you want to change your mailing address or report a missing issue; it’s also, as far as I can tell, run by some strange and possibly forgotten corner of Condé Nast rather than by The New Yorker itself. Every Condé Nast publication has a similar page, and — of course! — they’re all completely separate from each other; if you have subscriptions to multiple CN magazines, you still have to log into each of them on its own, and you can’t manage multiple subscriptions. (Although Condé Nast plans to take all of its websites behind paywalls by the end of 2019, there are still no current plans to merge these “customer care” backends, a company rep said. “It’s certainly something we’ll look at down the road, but the priority for this year is getting our brands behind paywalls that are tailored to their audiences.”)

Okay, so the customer care page was a foreign corner that we wouldn’t talk about. But why was it so hard, on NewYorker.com, to tell whether I was actually logged in or not? Why did I keep seeing invitations to subscribe when I already was a subscriber? It wasn’t that this was — any of this — was really such an urgent problem. (My casual testing suggested that it was greatly affected by which browser I was using and whether I had adblocking extensions turned on.) It was just these little things that, well, were noticeable, and annoying. The New Yorker will soon charge $149 a year for a print-plus-digital subscription, up from $120. An annual digital-only subscription is currently $90. I pay $132/year for Netflix, $119/year for Amazon Prime. I rarely if ever have to log into my Netflix or Amazon accounts, which multiple people in my household access across different devices. They’re just there.

On the one hand, maybe it’s unfair to have tech-company-level expectations for a single magazine, which is not a middleman in the same way that Netflix and Amazon at least once were (but, as they release more and more of their own programming, are increasingly not). On the other hand, when you’re paying roughly the same price for the products, how can you not compare them at some point? There will have to be a point when the digital media site isn’t always coming up short, when the digital media experience isn’t always worse. We may not quite have reached that point yet, but as publications increasingly look to their readers to support them, we are going to hit it soon. Customer service concerns will become less media Twitter niche complaints — and more inextricably linked with the product itself.

This piece was updated to note that The New Yorker did not change its social media policy. Rather, Google ended its First Click Free policy, and now Google users can see four free New Yorker articles per month via Google links.

POSTED     Jan. 29, 2019, 1:12 p.m.
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