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New Media Barbarians Breach New York Times Paywall in Hours [Update]

It was obvious from the start that the New York Times (NYT) paywall would be fairly porous. But it's actually far worse than I originally thought. Eighteen months of intense and expensive planning left the entire scheme open to be completely bypassed in 12 hours by one Twitter feed or four simple lines of code.

The Times clearly wants to segment its readers. Light readers would get to see up to 20 articles, blog posts, slide shows, or what have you a month. Referrals from social media, blogs, and search engines wouldn't count against the monthly quotas -- except for Google, whose users would find themselves restricted to five articles a day. Heavy users would face a monthly fee, generating revenue for the NYT to help offset lower online ad rates compared to print.

That's another way of saying that the Times wants to have its subscription cake, but eat all the online ad revenue from casual visitors, too. As Bloomberg reported:

"We believe that enough people will pay, but we will not cut ourselves off from the rest," Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Times Co.'s chairman, said at a conference in Munich last week.
The Times spent many months devising its master plan. Almost immediately after the introduction, people began tearing apart the virtual mortar that held the paywall together. Within half a day of the announcement, a new Twitter feed -- @freenyt -- promised to tweet all Times stories. And there were no limits on reading articles from social media referrals.

The New York Times took strong action. Remember that 5-article-a-day limit on Google? It now applies to all major search engines, including Microsoft (MSFT) Bing. Except, it still doesn't apply to Twitter and the @freenyt feed.

Even if it did, there are other workarounds. The Times implemented its paywall with some simple Javascript. Except, there are tools that can remove such bits of code. A coder in Canada created a tiny application that runs in a browser and removes the visual curtain that the paper puts in front of articles once users pass their limit.

Remind me again, how long did the company work on this project? And it reputedly cost more than $40 million to build. Then how could it be so incredibly easy to bypass all this hard work? Simple: some people in management get paid way too much.

[Update: According to Jeff Bercovici at Forbes.com, the Times has asked Twitter to shut down the @FreeNYTimes feed. As far as the browser-based paywall workarounds go, the Times will "continue to monitor the situation but plan no changes to the programming or paywall structure in advance of our global launch on March 28th."]

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Image: Erik Sherman, all rights reserved.