When smart paywalls are dumb

The dreaded text-fade when you click on a paywalled article.

Today, in an ideal world, my daily newsletter would have recommended my subscribers read the FT’s in-depth look at why Sir Martin Sorrell left WPP. It’s a good read, but it’s paywalled.

Sharing paywalled articles in a newsletter is the ideal way to annoy your readers. At best, it frustrates them that they can’t access the article you just told them they must read. At worst, it looks like you’re rubbing your privilege in their faces (“I’m a paid-up subscriber, and you’re not!”).

One piece of common courtesy is to flag paywalled links so readers don’t click through in vain. I try to do this, but it isn’t always simple — especially as paywalls are increasingly difficult to understand.

‘X number of free articles per month’ counters are common now, meaning curators don’t know if each of their individual readers will be able to read an article or not.

And paywalls are getting smarter, too. The Wall Street Journal’s ‘bendy’ paywall behaves differently depending on a visitor’s behaviour. As Nieman Lab explained earlier this year, “non-subscribers visiting WSJ.com now get a score, based on dozens of signals, that indicates how likely they’ll be to subscribe. The paywall tightens or loosens accordingly.”

Then there’s the fact that editors at individual publications may remove the paywall on certain articles for a limited time, based on how those articles are performing. I clicked through to the FT’s Sorrell article at one point yesterday and hit the paywall. Later in the day, it was free for me to read. Why? I have no idea at all.

A paywall, not leaking.

Leaky paywalls are nothing new. Google’s ‘first click free’ policy used to let you onto a paywalled site to read an article you searched for, and some paywalls have let clicks from social media in without charge for years, but now it’s harder than ever to predict whether sharing a link will result in frustration or satisfaction.

So, what should publishers do to help visitors understand how a share will behave? A set number of free articles per month is fine as a basic concession to non-subscribers, but I’m a big fan of The Information’s unique share links for individual articles.

Subscribers to The Information get the ability to share links to full articles.

As a subscriber, I can copy a special link that lets anyone I give it to read a specific article for free. Presumably, if I abused this by setting up a free version of The Information, full of my own personal share links, they’d be able to quickly shut me off.

Without an alternative, the main option for me as a curator is to simply not share any paywalled content at all, but that’s increasingly difficult as the number of paywalls grows. Linking to another outlet’s free-to-access summary of a big scoop feels a little grubby, and I do feel there’s a role to play for newsletters as gateways to subscriptions for publishers.

In an ideal world, everyone would pay for everything they read. But that’s probably never going to be feasible. So publishers, please share a thought for humble curators — after all, we help send lots of lovely traffic, and potential subscribers, your way.

My daily newsletter, Big Revolution, features an original piece like this every day, Monday to Friday.