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Old 03-24-2011, 04:46 PM  
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Keizer, OR
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Four lines of code is all it takes for The New York Times? paywall to come tumbling down

The New York Times paywall is costing the newspaper $40-$50 million to design and construct, Bloomberg has reported.

And it can be defeated through four lines of Javascript.

That fact is both the problem and the opportunity of a leaky paywall. There is no one consistent, workable price for online news content. For the vast majority of people who read a news site, the price they?re willing to pay is zero; for a few, it?s something more. The key question of the Times paywall ? and of any paywall, really ? is how to maximize the revenue generated from those two extremes and the various gradations in between.

The Times? approach is to create a relatively high price point ? $15 to $35 a month, depending on the package ? for those willing to pay. For those who are very casual fly-by readers ? those who read fewer than 20 articles a month ? the site remains free, and the Times makes money from advertising. And for those in the middle ? readers who lack the brand loyalty to want to pay, but nonetheless like to see Times stories pop up in their Twitter feed ? the social media ?leak? in the paywall will keep letting them in for ads.

That kind of nuance makes for a much more precise instrument than a blunt-force paywall. But it also puts the onus on you to get all that nuance right. Get it wrong and you risk angering readers ? or letting would-be paying customers in for free.

The Times paywall doesn?t launch in the United States for another week; the paper has plenty of time to plug this particular Javascript vulnerability, which goes by the name NYTClean, if it wants to. But the real question is: Is this a hole they really want closed? Or is this one of the intentional leaks in the wall?

The parable of NYTClean
<nerdy interlude>

In my piece Thursday looking at the paywall ? currently only live in Canada ? I noted that, when you reach your 20-article limit and try to read more, the contraband article actually loads just fine in your browser ? it?s just quickly covered by an overlay obscuring the article and reminding you to pay up:
The full text of the article is still visible in the page source. And as I mentioned in responding to a commenter ? and as is evident to anyone who can right-click on a page and choose ?Inspect Element? ? the overlay is nothing more than a little CSS and Javascript.

Unfortunately for the Times, there are plenty of popular (or popular-among-nerds) tools that tactically remove little bits of CSS and Javascript. There?s Greasemonkey, there?s Stylish ? not to mention the ease with which a browser extension in Firefox, Chrome, or Safari can be built to strip out code. As I wrote:

?not to get too far into it (although many bearded people will in the coming days, I can assure you), but yeah, as far as I can tell it?s just a set of divs generated by some javascript. Although I couldn?t quickly find that script in any of the linked .js files, certainly someone nerdier than me will.

So an attempt at a set of Firefox/Chrome/Safari extensions named FreeNYT can?t be too far off. Although I?m sure the Times has already thought of some creative things to counter that too.

Well, consider the first shot in the NYT paywall battle fired. Canadian coder David Hayes has just released NYTClean, a bookmarklet that, in one click, tears down the Times? paywall.

?Released? is probably even a little strong ? it makes it sound like there was an extended development process. All NYTClean does is call four measly lines of Javascript that hide a couple <div>s and turn page scrolling back on. It barely even qualifies as a hack. But it allows you access to any New York Times story, even when you?re past the monthly limit. (I just tested it out with a Canadian proxy server ? works just like it says.)

</nerdy interlude>

(Obligatory note: I think the Times is right to ask regular readers to pay, and I think their paywall is basically well designed. Me, I just became a print subscriber last week, using the Frank Rich Discount. Support your local journalist!)

Leakiness: a bug and a feature
Now, the Times paywall is, to a certain extent, defined by its leakiness. The various holes ? external links from social media and search biggest among them ? are no accident; they?re the result of some (correct, I say) thinking about hitting the right balance between fly-by and dedicated readers, between those who come in the front door and others who arrive from the side.

But the tradeoff for those holes is that they?re designed to be a pain to use if you?re a dedicated NYT reader. Click an occasional Times link when it comes up in your Twitter stream? No problem. But if you?re the kind of person who goes to nytimes.com every morning and clicks on four or five articles, you?ll quickly find it?s a big pain to go search for a headline in Google or Twitter every time you want to read another David Carr piece. (A similar workaround has existed for Wall Street Journal stories behind its paywall for years, but it?s doubtful anyone other than the most desperate reader has ever used it much.)

I'll believe corporations are persons when Texas executes one.: LBJ's Ghost
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