The New York Times is running a test that stops incognito browsers from skirting its paywall, making news a little harder to steal.

Metered paywalls are a balancing act for newsrooms. They try to thread the needle between finding an audience dedicated enough to trip them, but not dedicated enough to find their way around. They have to be open enough to bring in readers, but closed enough to generate profits.

The point of equilibrium for each newsroom depends on how it sees reader intent. Soft paywalls assume readers won’t look elsewhere after hitting their limit. Hard paywalls assume readers won’t pay unless forced.

Those calculations are always in flux, depending on business priorities. In the Times’ case, the internal math is changing as the focus on digital subscriptions intensifies. If paying customers are the metric of value, rather than traffic or ad impressions, losing a few freeloaders to a stricter paywall becomes less of a concern.

The sticking point to that calculation, though, is that there’s (almost) always a way around the paywall. If not incognito mode, enterprising readers can use a save for later service like Pocket. If not Pocket, annotation sites like often extract the text of articles. It’s very hard to fully gate off a piece of text from the internet. That means the goal of paywalls isn’t to make it impossible to get at a story without paying, but to make it inconvenient enough to drive dedicated readers to pay.

Think of news paywalls in terms of the services offered by Netflix and Spotify. Movies and music don’t exist solely behind their gates. In fact, it’s potentially much easier to get at those products than news, thanks to a robust piracy ecosystem. But Netflix and Spotify and every other media subscription service offer something extra to incentivize paying customers. They make finding things you’ll enjoy fast and easy. They give you tools to keep track of what you’re consuming. Netflix in particular provides its own movies and shows on top of what it licenses. These services succeed because they take their core offering and wrap it in proprietary extras that make the whole bundle more appealing.

What’s the comparable offering in news? What’s the experience behind the paywall that compels someone to subscribe? What’s the extra thing that subscribers get, beyond unlimited access to articles, that makes becoming a paying customer a no-brainer? Publishers are starting to answer these questions with merchandise, members-only podcasts and exclusive newsletters. As the industry zeroes in on digital subscriptions, though, it’s worth thinking more about why readers should pay for something they can find for free with a little extra work.

PhD student @ Northwestern University. I worked in digital media, now I study it.

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