The great paywall tightening of 2017 continues. The New York Times said Friday that it will cut the number of free articles available to “most” non-subscribers each month from 10 to five, Bloomberg reported. The change is the most significant one the Times has made to its pay model since 2012, when it cut the number of monthly free articles from 20 to 10. (According to Bloomberg, “The Times may eventually offer a different number of free articles to non-subscribers based on how they arrive or their reading habits.”)
For the Times, the move is an effort to capitalize on what’s been a revitalizing moment for journalism. The “Trump bump” surge in subscribers that news organizations saw after last year’s election has proven to be more than a temporary phenomenon, both broadly and at the Times itself: The Times saw its digital subscriber count surge to nearly 2.5 million in the third quarter of 2017, a 59 percent increase over the previous year. Roughly 154,000 of those digital-only subscribers came last quarter alone. By tightening its paywall further, the Times is tweaking the knobs to convince more subscribers to pay up.
The Times joins many other large news organizations that have also made major tweaks to their paid models this year. In February, The Wall Street Journal stopped offering Google visitors free access to paywalled stories, ending a years-long capitulation to Google’s “first-click free” policy (Google ended that policy in October). The Washington Post has experimented with throwing new hurdles at non-subscribers, too, such as requiring them to submit their email addresses, and will soon stop free access for university-based readers. The Boston Globe cut its free articles from five every 45 days to just two..
The new paywall restrictions come as the digital advertising environment continues to darken for most companies not named Google and Facebook, which have snatched up most of the growth in digital ad spending. Seeing the writing on the wall, news organizations are increasingly looking to their readers to help make up for the losses on the ad side. (Wired, for example, said this week that it will introduce a metered paywall next year.)
— David Uberti (@DavidUberti) December 1, 2017
This may help explain why news organizations, including the Times, aren’t letting the potential traffic declines from tighter paywalls dissuade them from making it harder for readers to access their content for free: Any ad revenue declines that result from fewer pageviews are likely to pale in comparison to the revenue gains from new subscribers. It’s hard to argue that it’s not an experiment worth conducting.