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How Paywalls Work


The New York Times paywall went live on March 28, 2011.
The New York Times paywall went live on March 28, 2011.
alextorrenegra/Flickr Creative Commons

On March 28, 2011, a grand online experiment commenced. Or rather, re-commenced.

At the stroke of 2 p.m., a paywall, or online system charging visitors to access content, went live on The New York Times Web site, and many wondered whether the "Gray Lady" was about to fall flat on her face by charging readers to browse articles. After all, The Times had already dabbled in this concept in late 2005 when it attempted to cordon off its most popular opinion columns and archived articles under the TimesSelect paywall. The paper dismantled TimeSelect in 2007, a defeat of sorts that seemed to make the stakes for the second go-around even higher.

Granted, this shiny new paywall is designed much differently than TimesSelect. Rather than charging an upfront monthly or yearly rate ($7.95 and $49.95, respectively), the media machine opted for a metered approach instead. Visitors can access their first 20 articles per month at no cost, but have to fork over for online subscriptions beyond that [source: The New York Times]. Or if people choose to go rogue, they can simply "hop over" the paywall, which we'll discuss in more detail later.

Paywalls are of particular concern to the Web sites of print publications, hence the back-and-forth over The New York Times. In the past, a number of newspapers and magazines have attempted to charge readers for access, and then later backed down due to dwindling online traffic. As many print publications folded and shrank during the recession, sites struggled to figure out how to bridge their revenue gaps, and for a while, it seemed like online advertising surrounding freely accessible content was the answer.

However, The Times and other publications aren't so sure that ads are profit panacea they've hoped for. And since it costs these businesses to serve up the articles the wired public gobbles up for free, isn't it time users start footing some of the bill? That's been the question for many online content providers -- the folks who bring you libraries of music, movies, television, commentary, journalism and research -- as they struggle over whether or not to charge visitors for access, streaming and downloads. Also, the rise of mobile devices and tablet computing is revolutionizing traditional content and providing consumers with new ways to interact and engage with online publications, which some consider worth a premium toll. And so the debate over free versus paid online content rages on.