Despite Paywall, New York Times Readers Spot Holes to Read for Free

New York Times says paywall is meant to be "porous," to keep Web open.

March 29, 2011, 2:26 PM

March 30, 2011— -- Don't want to pay for content hidden behind the New York Times' recently-raised paywall? Hopping over it may be easier than you think.

Since the Times' announcement two weeks ago that it would start charging for access to its site, programmers, readers and bloggers have made a sport of finding the holes in the so-called Grey Lady's digital wall, spreading their tactics far and wide. Some have burrowed in with lines of code, others are finding free access just by switching Web browsers.

While critics say the gaps highlight flaws in the newspapers' new business model, the Times says the holes are deliberate and meant to encourage openness across the Internet.

In announcing the digital subscription plan that went live Monday, the Times said readers could still view 20 articles every four weeks for free, including slideshows, videos and other features.

After 20 articles, the charge ranges from $15 to $35 every four weeks, depending on whether readers want to access the content from just the Web or other mobile devices as well.

Home delivery subscribers get all access for no extra charge and the Times revealed Monday that Kindle subscribers will also get free access to Web content with their $20 monthly subscription.

Readers who reach the Times through blogs and links from social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, can access unlimited articles, even if they have reached their monthly limit, the paper said. And those who come in through search engines, like Google, Bing and Yahoo, get five extra stories per day.

But industry watchers say those small cracks in the Times' wall are really just the beginning.

"The bottom line is anyone who wants to get through this paywall can do it as easily as tweeting themselves a link to whatever they want to read," said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the popular tech blog Search Engine Land.

Soon after the Times erected its barrier, Sullivan started experimenting with different Web browsers to see how easy it would be for a non-subscriber to read more than the allotted 20 stories a month.

Just changing Web browsers gives readers an additional 20 stories each month, he said, and that's not including the extra five stories per day, per search engine. From his testing, he also found that the Times does not block readers from entering the site from the search engines Ask or Blekko.

Canadian Programmer Undermines Times Paywall

If you're loyal to your Web browser, you can bypass the wall by just clearing the browser cookies that the paper uses to track the number of stories you've read online.

The tech blog (and partner) Mashable yesterday noted that two of its readers pointed out that breaching the paywall is as easy as deleting the characters "?gwh=numbers" from the URL.

Just days after the paper's initial announcement, the director of Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab disclosed that the paywall that reportedly cost the Times $40 million could be undermined with just four lines of computer code.

And to simplify the process even further, a Canadian programmer released a so-called "bookmarklet" called NYTClean that, once added to your Web browser, lets anyone bypass the paywall with one click.

Other free-information fans have taken to Twitter to release the Times' protected content.

Leveraging the paper's decision to let readers access the site through social media, the Twitter account @FreeNYT tweets the links to each of the Times' stories.

The Times has asked the Twitter user to close the account, not because of sharing content but because of a trademark violation.

Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, said that not only is the paper well aware of the "holes" in its wall, but the holes have been left open intentionally.

"We have designed our digital subscription policy with the idea that we want it to have a porous wall. It is not a paywall in the typical sense of the word," she said. "We knew from the beginning that there would be people who would try to get around."

The Times wanted to continue to encourage an "open Web experience" and not cut off readers coming in from Twitter, Facebook and search engines, she said.

While some readers may continue to work around the paywall, the paper believes others will want the full, direct experience that comes with the monthly fee, she said.

"We fully expect that we'll have many people agree with that and buy digital subscriptions," she said.

But Search Engine Land's Sullivan said he takes issue with the paper's decision to block readers who come in from search engines and thinks other payment plans, such as micro-payments or a so-called "Hulu for news" might have been more effective in generating revenue while consistently limiting non-subscribers' access.

Still, given what he called the paper's "modest goals" for the subscription plan, he expects it to have relative success attracting digital subscribers.

"I've got no doubt that there are people who don't know or don't want to bother with the real simple things that can be done to get around it, and they'll pay for it," he said.

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