New York Times paywall: How it works and what it means

The New York Times paywall goes into effect this afternoon. But some critics think the Times is making a big mistake.

The New York Times paywall system goes into effect this afternoon. Pictured here, the The New York Times building on Eighth Avenue in Times Square.

Beginning this afternoon, The New York Times will wrap a big old paywall around its online content, forcing users to fork over cash to read the paper online – or to hunt further afield for pirated copy. One Times editor has called the paywall – which goes into effect at 2 p.m. – "a new business model for our digital journalism that establishes a value for consuming our content online."

So how does the whole paywall thing work? Well, if you're a current subscriber to the Times, you have nothing to worry about – you get "full and free access to our news, information, opinion," on any device that your heart desires. But if you're not a current subscriber, you will only be permitted to click through 20 articles a month; after that, you'll have to sign up to be a "digital subscriber."

As of this afternoon, the Times is offering some seriously rock-bottom digital subscriber rates – at least for the first four weeks of service. But once regular rates kick in, they'll look something like this: $15 a month for unlimited access to the Times website and the Times smartphone app; $20 a month for unlimited website access plus access to the Times iPad app (but not smartphone apps); and a hefty $35 a month for access to everything.

"[T]he introduction of digital subscriptions is an investment in our future," Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. wrote in a letter to readers today. "It will allow us to develop new sources of revenue to strengthen our ability to continue our journalistic mission as well as undertake digital innovations that will enable us to provide you with high-quality journalism on whatever device you choose."

The Times, of course, isn't new to the whole paywall thing; a few years back, the paper launched – and subsequently shuttered – Times Select, a "premium" section of "We now believe by opening up all our content and unleashing what will be millions and millions of new documents, combined with phenomenal growth, that that will create a revenue stream that will more than exceed the subscription revenue," a Times exec said in 2007, when Times Select closed down.

Now the Times is going back behind a paywall, which has made a whole lot of analysts very skeptical. Writes Felix Salmon of Reuters:

The public simply is not going to understand how the paywall works; I’m sure about this because over the past week I’ve come across a number of different NYT staffers – all of whom are involved in the NYT’s blogs, and therefore would you think be pretty attuned to such things – who don’t understand the paywall and believe untrue things about it. If the NYT can’t explain the paywall to its own staff, there’s no way it’s going to be able to explain it to its readers.

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