The dirty little secret of the pay wall, that new model many newspaper websites are using in which readers get a limited number of free stories within a given time period, after which they’re told to subscribe (read: pay) for additional content, is becoming common knowledge: Deleting cookies blows a hole in the pay wall. That’s it. Walk right in. The content remains free.

cookie_monsterCookies are like digital finger prints websites embed in your computer that allow the sites to track what you’re clicking and reading. Delete the cookie and the website gets amnesia, forgetting you were ever there or who you are. Consequently, the meter tracking your clicks goes back to zero. “Welcome, new person,” the newspaper website says, “I will now begin counting your clicks.”

Gannett, parent company of The Daily Advertiser and four other Louisiana newspapers and the nation’s largest newspaper chain, adopted the pay wall model this month. But if you go to YouTube (or see the video embedded below) you can watch a video demonstrating how to delete Advertiser cookies from your computer browser, allowing for unlimited free content. That’s the theory anyway. Safari is the browser of choice in the video.

To further test this we went to The New York Times’ website, nytimes.com, on Firefox. NYT adopted the pay wall model months ago. Non-subscribers are given 10 free “clicks” per month. When the meter runs out, you have to pay for additional content. We surfed around the site until a notification popped up indicating that we had reached our 10-story limit. We deleted all cookies linked to “nytimes,” went back to the site and, sure enough, we had access again. After five clicks we were notified that we had read half of our free stories. The meter had started over.

This probably explains why The Times-Picayune is not adopting the pay wall model for its website as it moves to a digitally focused news future: pay walls don’t work, at least not if they rely on embedding cookies in your computer, and as this becomes common knowledge pay walls will become an ineffectual means for newspaper websites to generate revenue. Instead, they’ll have to generate revenue the old-fashioned way: By cultivating their online readership and then convincing advertisers that websites are a good investment.

Being in the newspaper business ourselves, we may be committing an industrial sin by disseminating this know-how. After all, we have a vital interest in the continuing health of our industry, which has been sickly and weak lo these many years. But we also have little doubt that newspapers will figure out some other technological means of enforcing the pay wall. For the time being, however, it appears that the pay wall is little more than a smoke screen.

 

[Editor’s Caveat: We’re not encouraging readers to circumvent newspaper pay walls. Papers own their content and charge for it if they damn well please. Moreover, we wonder whether readers who delete cookies to open the pay wall are running afoul of federal copyright laws. Just sayin’.]

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