Paywall sentences to ponder

Non-subscribers visiting now get a score, based on dozens of signals, that indicates how likely they’ll be to subscribe. The paywall tightens or loosens accordingly: “The content you see is the output of the paywall, rather than an input.”

Here is the full Nieman Lab article, you all have a good enough score to read it, just like at MR.


On 2017 the WSJ surprised me and nurtured my confirmation bias twice: an excellent article on the global appeal of heavy metal and a recommendation for the Steven Wilson tour. These cultural articles were free, once you want to read business issues......the paywall is there.

Me, I’m not surprised to read about this sudden enormous interest in getting access to the WSJ, whatever the topic may be. I’m a fairly wide-spread reader. Start every day by looking in at a diverse range of maybe 10 news and opinion outlets in Europe, UK, USA, Latin America, Australia, Asia (I could go on). Oh yes, and Marginal Revolution of course. Increasingly I just read the headlines. It’s not the news that is depressing, it’s the slant, the prejudice, the mass hysteria, and the treating of salt of the earth commonsense people as if they were morons. For years I taught lefty ’media studies’ students at universities who for some reason wanted to take my subjects as electives. Got to know them well under adverse conditions, so I do have a little bit of insight into the twisted culture they emerge from.

Now I shall offer y’all my genuine PhD-level Political Science Most Learned & Cosmopolitan Opinion ... free of charge. Here goes — Since Trump was elected WSJ is the ONLY major news outlet worldwide to consistently provide intelligent, alert, savvy, balanced reporting and opinion on Trump and the very many shenanigans that relate to Trump both directly and tangentially.

I will even go so far as to say the WSJ comes closer to scientific objectivity than any other major news outlet at the present time. That’s quite a claim, but it’s a solidly-founded opinion.

For the second time at MR, I will highly recommend the Potomac Watch podcast with Paul Gigot. I never miss an episode. Of course there are also a large number of other excellent columnists at WSJ, each of them with their own angle and style. One of them died unfortunately, Joe Rago, very young guy, very brave and smart. I think he was on the Editorial Board, talking intelligently about Trump when such talk was widely regarded as a clear sign of covert demagogy meriting some intelligence agency scrutiny. I wondered if WSJ would remain good after he died. It did.

I tell you the one who should get a medal for bravery and stamina. She might be heading for a Pulitzer. Kimberley Strassel. Really outstanding week after week. Digging up the dirt. Telling it as it is.

I wasn’t paid for this soliloquy.

Thank you. I too look for a reasonable level* of objectivity. So I’ll have a look at the WSJ.

* I want a high level of objectivity but I know I won’t get it.

So which way does it work? If you are deemed very unlikely to subscribe, do you get to read all the articles for free (since you wouldn't subscribe anyway so hiding them from you is pointless; at best, you are just another person who might link the articles to someone who subscribes) or do you get punished and not get any free articles at all?

Yeah, I was wondering that, too. Readers generate ad revenue, so perfect price discrimination would be giving the content away for free to anyone unwilling to pay.

The article doesn't make it completely clear (probably by design). Being less likely to subscribe does result in getting more free content, though.

Well, according to the person in charge of this at the WSJ, this is how it works - '“What we’ve found is that if we open up the paywall — we call it sampling — to those who have a low propensity to subscribe, then their likelihood to subscribe goes up.”'

Seems pretty straightforward, to be honest.

The problem with subscriptions is that they limit the options of subscribers to read from the whole of the internet. Of course they can still do it, but each time they hit a paywall they have in theory to take out an additional periodical subscription until the cost/benefit becomes prohibitive.

The answer to this is microcurrency. That is to say readers put some fiat currency into a pot and each time they read a pay-walled article a few cents are taken out of that pot until it is empty, and then they have to fill it again.

The objection to this is that the costs of operating the microcurrency system are always too high per transaction for anyone to use it, or conversely too low for anyone to manage it.

Maybe someday someone will find a solution.

That's an interesting idea. I think that when considering this as a price optimization problem, the paywalls are pretty close to optimal (assuming reasonable limits on what kind of price discrimination is possible).

There is a certain subset of people who value the Wall Street Journal enough to pay >$200 per year. Getting these people to pay a high price for the content is almost certainly the correct business decision.

The vast majority of people are willing to pay zero, or very close to zero, for that content--because they have no particular preference for the WSJ, and loads of alternative free content is available. No matter how you arrange payment, you aren't going to get significant money out of these people. Even registering for a free account and entering an email address is enough of a barrier to turn many people away. Micro-payments are a non-starter for most people.

Seems like there might be a market for "super-subscriptions". One (higher) tariff that gets you access to WSJ, NYT, The Times, Le Monde, Die Welt, etc. ....maybe on a limited article a month basis.

That's interesting, too. But could it add enough new paying customers to make up for customers taken away from site-specific subscriptions?

Cable programming bundling was a stable equilibrium for a long while.

If the individual site can’t adequately price discriminate, band with others to create a product of broad appeal.

Yeah, but bundling arguably exists because of technical limitations setting the business model. I don't think cable companies' initial technology allowed individual households to select a custom set of channels.

In streaming TV the trend is away from bundling. Early services tried to aggregate all the content a customer would want into a single package, but now we are moving toward multiple individual services producing or providing their original content.

I always thought that something like micro-payments would evolve on the internet for content like this. It never has. You'd think that a company like PayPal would be able to do it and make it cost effective.

Micro-payments for internet content do exist (more or less) in the form of ads. They just aren't paid by the user.

Many content creators are willing to work just for ad revenue, so it's hard for a business model that also requires income from the users to compete with that.

From the article: "The cost of a subscription doesn’t vary based on a reader’s score."

Yeah, how long do we think that's going to last?

Damn. That had been my secret plan to get rich.

It seems so obvious. I constantly get blocked from weird sites that I may never visit again and so won't spend $100 for a subscription. But I might pay $0.20 to read an article

Trivia: the inventor of "hypertext" imagined a system with micropayments. He went down the rabbit hole of trying to make it work and got lost. The world wide web succeeded by discarding the complexity. Now, later, some claim they are ready.

'The content you see is the output of the paywall'

That has been true since the introduction of paywalls - that is the reason they exist, after all. This is just an attempt to extract more money through tuning the paywall as a way to attract more subscribers, and to be honest, does not seem all that revolutionary. For example, the price you see at Amazon is also determined by 'scoring' - an unknown visitor is offered a lower price, for example.

From the article - 'since the scores are anonymized.' Sure they are, when one is credulous enough. To the extent possible, the WSJ is determining each visit as precisely as possible. The score may be anonymized, but the data used to derive that data almost certainly isn't.

While that statement wasn't totally clear, I think they mean that the paywall is a filter that dynamically displays content--rather than the traditional model of the paywall just being a log in barrier, with a static set of content inside and another static set of content outside.

Possibly, but dynamic content is not exactly something invented in the last 10 years. A user (inside or outside of the paywall) hasn't been seeing the same content as other users for years, apart (possibly) from the main article.

The only thing interesting about the article was that the WSJ seems to have realized that its continued online growth would require more active measures, and is taking them.

I'm not aware of anyone else who has implemented a paywall that varies in strength based on profiling the user. That does seem newsworthy, even if it is a natural development from existing trends.

'I’m not aware of anyone else who has implemented a paywall that varies in strength based on profiling the user.'

Lots of paid subscription places do this, if not to the extremely fine grained nature of the WSJ. And it really does depend on what is meant by profiling - a method that has been around since Netscape involves cookies (easily defeated, of course). No cookie, let the person in for a certain amount of time - with the time noted in the cookie. Cookie showing that someone has already visited, no access.

There is no question that the WSJ is going far beyond such 2 decade old methods, but mainly because no one has really seen the need. Apart from a company like Amazon (in a different context, admittedly).

Citation please. Amazon discontinued brazen price discrimination after an episode of bad press years ago, and given the way they now sell real time price data to their affiliates, it’s unlikely they could surreptitiously reintroduce the practice.

Personal experience the last time I bought a scanner? There is nothing brazen about having the first time someone searches for something be show a price like €73, and when returning with the same browser the next day, seeing it advertised at €75 - and that price remaining fixed for the next several days. This has occurred with several different electronic items over the last couple of years, including ordering and then going back a day later to see the price. The effect is fairly consistent, a basic trick to get a small discount by making sure that Amazon does not recognize you effectively when shopping, and to buy the item in that first 'unknown' session. If you are already known to Amazon, you probably never see this happen at all.

I have mentioned before that for many years I started my work day reading the WSJ, delivered to my office before I arrived around 7:30. It was the best written national newspaper. The writers of the news articles and the writers of the op/ed pieces occupied different universes, and surely must have occupied different office buildings. Alas, the quality of the writing of the news articles has sunk, as the stridency of the op/ed section has risen. Now I start my day reading the digital edition of the NYT, clearly the best written national newspaper with the most diverse op/ed section. Indeed, my favorite contributor to the op/ed section is a WSJ veteran (news and op/ed), Bret Stephens. Not that I always agree with Stephens, but he always makes me think. As Stephens reminded in a recent speech given at the Univ. of Michigan, "if we (journalists) aren’t making our readers uncomfortable every day, we aren’t doing our job. There’s an old saying that the role of the journalist is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, but the saying is wrong. The role of the journalist is to afflict, period."

Here is the transcript Stephens' speech (it's longer than a typical op/ed essay, but well worth the read):

A journalist's job is to report the news. But that is hard, boring work that doesn't win you prizes. It's much more fun and rewarding to be a blowhard like Stephens.

Don’t be ridiculous Ted. Stephens writes opinion pieces, like Friedman and Krugman. It’s what they were hired to provide.

Stephens make me think even when I disagree with him. (Compare: Friedman hasn’t offered much for years though at one time he was important, by virtue of saying things others couldn’t or wouldn’t. Krugman the economist stands in contrast to the unhinged figure we now have writing op-eds.)

I'm not being ridiculous, you are by assuming I don't understand Stephens' role. What I object to is this sweeping claim that journalists should do something other than report the news.

See also on super-paywalls.

It's no mystery what "signals" the WSJ is looking for. As Cowen implies, a link to the WSJ from MR would likely be a positive "signal", whereas a link to the WSJ from the New York Magazine would likely be a negative "signal". To be clear, I read MR for Cowen's reading list, a very diverse list indeed. That and the challenge of interpreting his Straussianisms.

I wonder if instead they should raise or lower the price.

It is a fairly scary scenario that we all see different realities, tipped by different providers, for "our market." This could be Fox saying there is only certain news, or Amazon saying that there are only certain coffee makers.

I hope that wild-west platforms (Twitter? Here?) continue to break down silos.

Maybe Amazon won't highlight the economical path to good coffee, but we can help each other get there.

simple cone filter

Twitter breaks down filters? I don't think so. It can, but most people don't use it like that. I actually find Facebook exposes me to a wider range of opinions because the connections focus on personal relationships rather than interests.

Good point. I use both for precisely that reason. Twitter users in my circles anyhow tend to be far better educated and accomplished.

fwiw, I recently subscribed to on an introductory rate and then cancelled my subscription when I learned that while it is a quick and easy process to begin a subscription, in order to cancel you have to call them on the phone. Which I did, and the wait on hold plus the obligatory sales pitch when I finally talked to a live person convinced me to cancel for good instead of continuing.

I was given a "gift" subscription to NYT for completing a survey with the condition of giving my credit card. I chose a live chat instead of a call, and got the same treatment. Put on hold and then a hard sell, with a slightly deceptive pricing structure at that. (Not very deceptive, but it was a small amount of money and I wasn't paying close attention.) And they discontinued my gift subscription on the spot to start taking my money. The next day I cancelled the subscription again.

Never again. If they want to sell like that, I'm not buying. No to the WSJ too for that reason. There are plenty of reputable news companies who don't treat their customers poorly.

It didn't say whether the customer was being charged for being on hold, but if he was then this system is a fraud in all but law. The synchronous voice telephone is old technology and is being used for massive extortion by making millions of customers pay for calls they don't really want to make. This isn't aimed at WSJ in particular, but all companies, and even government departments, that do this.

Instead people should be allowed to use asynchronous communication, ie post, email or SMS, to communicate with companies and government. Email and SMS solve the problem of distance and time. Synchronous voice telephony may solve the problem of distance, but it can be dishonestly (albeit legally) used to misappropriate money and time from people.

Comments for this post are closed