Paywall (And Other) Etiquette


(revised on 18th March 2021)

Robert writes: I am suggesting to my Browser colleagues that we mark up our recommendations with shortcodes indicating how to approach metered paywalls and registration requests on publishers' websites.

My argument is that, if we do this, we can feel more relaxed about recommending content from publications with metered paywalls and/or registration requirements. We can indicate confidently to our subscribers that, say, the requirement on the New York Review Of Books website for all first-time visitors to register, is, in our view, a reasonable one.

We are, by the way, firmly in favour of paid content, and of fair pay for writers. But we also suspect that the natural unit of paid content is the article, not the annual subscription, and that publishers are foregoing revenues and frustrating readers by insisting uniquely on subscription models.

So long as some publishers choose to offer free access to a few of their articles in order to draw readers' attention to the general excellence of their content and thereby attract new subscribers, the Browser is happy to assist them by recommending the very best of these articles to a wider readership.      

Here is the current draft for shortcodes attaching to article recommendations on The Browser. I would be pleased to receive comments on this from readers, writers and publishers: robert@robertcottrell.com

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U = Ungated, free. No restrictions of which we are aware.

TU = Temporarily ungated. We have reason to think that this piece, while free to read at the time of recommending, will be paywalled later. Carpe diem.

MP = Metered paywall. Visitors are allowed to read a set number of free pieces each week or month. If we know the number, we will tell you: for example, a recommendation for an article on Harper's, where visitors can read one piece free per month, will be marked MP 1/m. But most publishers prefer to keep the rules of their metered paywalls obscure, and to change or a/b test them unannounced, in the entirely respectable hope of eventually persuading frequent visitors that it would be easier just to buy a subscription.  

B = Bypassable. This shortcode is usually associated with a metered paywall. MP+B indicates that visitors who reach their limit of free pieces can open a "private browsing" or "incognito" window in their (small-b) browsers to start a new quota. This may sound anti-social; but publishers know perfectly well about this workaround; it would be relatively easy for them to block "incognito" visitors if they wished to do so; and many have put in just such a blocker. We conclude that, where we encounter a bypassable paywall, it is part of the publisher's strategy.

R = Registration required. Again, usually associated with a metered paywall. MP+R indicates that new visitors must create an account to access free content, typically by giving an email address. Reserved for well-behaved publications, such as the New York Review Of Books.

PDF = It's a PDF. It may take longer to load, and it may not play well with read-later services, but the PDF has defied expectations of its inevitable demise for almost 30 years, and we have to learn to live with it.    


Special cases:

Medium. We can't work it out at all. The general idea seems to be a metered site-wide paywall, but delivered via unpredictable pop-ups and blockers. Whereas most metered paywalls pursue a strategy of temptation, Medium pursues a strategy of frustration. I have found pieces inaccessible on Medium which even the authors themselves had assured me were free. We do occasionally recommend pieces from Medium, but the caprice of the paywall greatly raises the bar. I would be particularly pleased to hear from writers who publish on Medium what they understand the paywall rules to be, how these are communicated to them, and how much control they have over the settings for their own content.  

Der Spiegel. Often greets casual visitors with a pop-up that looks like a paywall, but is really just an accept-cookies request that goes away when you click "accept".

New Yorker. Metered paywall, fabulous content, but generally absent from The Browser since all of our subscribers seem to be New Yorker subscribers or devotees who read the whole thing anyway.

New York Times. Same situation as the New Yorker.

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