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The Wall Street Journal has built a paywall that bends to the individual reader (niemanlab.org)
56 points by Cwwm on Feb 22, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 48 comments

Here's my idea for all these publications. Make it possible for paying subscribers to post links to articles that are free to anyone if they click through. That increases the value of being a paid subscriber way beyond just being able to read the article. They can post to Twitter/FB and people will (eventually) know they can read whatever that person posts. Ultimately the WSJ/WashPo/Atlantic could gamify it and give reduced costs or even money back to the most prolific people on social media. Turn their readers into affiliates. Get more readers. Get more subscribers.

Linux weekly news[1] does this, they call them subscriber links. [1] http://lwn.net.

You see these links posted on hacker news from time to time

From the site:

The "subscriber link" mechanism allows an LWN.net subscriber to generate a special URL for a subscription-only article. That URL can then be given to others, who will be able to access the article regardless of whether they are subscribed. This feature is made available as a service to LWN subscribers, and in the hope that they will use it to spread the word about their favorite LWN articles.

If this feature is abused, it will hurt LWN's subscription revenues and defeat the whole point. Subscriber links may go away if that comes about.

"The Information" does this too.

Seems like an odd incentive structure: You have to pay to be able to post free links, but then you get paid if you do it a lot?

I see it more as a matter that some people read to actively source news, but not everyone does. These people are likely origin points for sharing news more broadly, so you want to make it easy for those key users to generate potential traffic for new customer acquisition.

I think the problem is that it's a bit easy to exploit, and articles from the major publications get shared enough anyway that I don't think giving everyone the ability to "sample" really changes the decision to buy.

> Seems like an odd incentive structure: You have to pay to be able to post free links, but then you get paid if you do it a lot?

It's almost like the relationship the RIAA has had with radio stations. The stations have to pay to license the music they play and then the RIAA member companies orchestrate payola schemes where they pay the radio stations to play their songs.

Bookmarklet that unlocks WSJ articles (may require FB acct):


You can also edit the URL and replace wsj.com with fullwsj.com, which employs the same redirect technique.

This is an interesting approach. So I need to appear as an unlikely customer even though I want to read their content.

Can’t wait for the browser plugin that facades being a cold customer. I foresee a cat and mouse game in the future where my AI is presenting me as beneficial to me as possible while their AI is trying to figure out if I’m real.

Something similar to this is explored in Permutation City (a book), where "smarter" emails won't disclose their message unless they think they're disclosing it directly to you, so people train AIs to run the emails in a sandbox and pretend to be the actual human operator to detect spam, and the emails are trained to try and figure out if it's the real intended recepient before getting to the spam part, and so on.

Fascinating. It's a shame that it's so hard to get people to pay for quality journalism. The world will be a dark place if the only news sources left are blogs by self-proclaimed journalists.

It's not. It's hard to get people to pay for a single site.

I read WSJ when I come across links from Hacker News, maybe 10x/month. I'm not gonna pay for that. I already pay for the NYT, the Economist and the New Yorker.

What's a shame is that there's no way for me to pay a set monthly fee for "news" and have that automatically proportioned among the sites I actually visit each month.

Hmm, a Netflix for news.

Perhaps you would end up with the same issue as Netflix where content providers raise their prices to the point that the aggregator would develop their own content in-house.

Or you could do Spotify for news, and dole out a percentage of the monthly subscription to publications based on the number of articles read.

The Brave web browser is trying to do something like this with its Basic Attention Token. It’s pretty sharp.

There's so much friction in the payments system. I've gotta stop what I've doing, jump through all these hoops to sign up, and then do it again if I want to cancel. Times every single source I might want to subscribe to.

That's before I even get into the dollars involved.

I subscribe to the Economist print edition (with free digital), and the digital-only NYT and Washington Post. I just don't see myself signing up to the WSJ and the LA Times just to get rid of the paywall the once a month I hit it.

Similarly, I'm not going to subscribe to the Seattle Times (I don't live there anymore, but I like occasionally reading 'local' news from my hometown).

Again, micropayments. If it was 5 cents per article and zero friction, I'd be all over it.

You just described Blendle, pretty much to a T.


What if the site used your GPU to mine 5 cents worth of cryptocurrency while you read the article?

Not the GP, but: nope. Someone grabbing 5 cents from my wallet is not the same as me giving someone 5 cents voluntarily.

It would not have to be involuntary. They could put up the paywall with a message that says "Click here to let us mine 5 cents of crypto. We'll let you view this article in exchange."

You're right, I guess letting some unknown entity use my stuff just feels weird. Money is the perfect medium for impersonal exchange of goods and services.

The best news source in NZ currently (in my opinion) is not behind a paywall, nor is it funded by advertising. It is the publicly funded Radio New Zealand (they have a news site along with the radio stations).

Similar could be said for Australian news sources (the publicly funded ABC and SBS networks being the two best sources of news there in my opinion).

I am so grateful for Australia's ABC News [1], on the web and TV.

For those who don't know they have a program called Media Watch which calls out biased reporting in the media - sometimes they even criticise their own organization when backed by evidence.

[1]: http://abc.net.au/news/

I prefer Radio New Zealand National to NPR, and I'm a Canadian living in California.

Or, overrun with CNNs and Fox News that exist primarily to entertain under the guise of 'news'. Oh wait.

I'm wondering if the Wall Street Journal still qualifies as quality journalism or would something like Bloomberg or the Financial Times be better?

(The WSJ editorial page has always been terrible, but the news organization at least used to have a good reputation.)

I have both a WSJ and FT subscription and WSJ seems to have better US and middle east coverage. FT seems to have more East Asian (as expected) and European coverage. WSJ is softer on the Trump administration with some articles in support of Trump policy initiatives, which probably turns some people off. FT is broadly negative about US economic populism and the Trump administration.

My comment wasn't meant to apply to a specific website/newspaper per se, but the general state of online news media.

> Fascinating. It's a shame that it's so hard to get people to pay for quality journalism.

Maybe because it isn't quality journalism. Ultimately, something is worth what people are willing to pay for.

> The world will be a dark place if the only news sources left are blogs by self-proclaimed journalists.

It's just as dark a place with "quality journalism".

You sound rather pessimistic.

My comment wasn't meant to apply to a specific website/newspaper per se, but the general state of online news media. Surely you believe someone or some publication somewhere is performing quality journalism.

So, in your opinion, what is quality journalism?

Just because something is profitable doesn't mean it is quality. Clickbait titles bring in ad dollars, but no one argues they result in a better article/story.

This is a reasonable application, but AI-powered price discrimination definitely raises some ethical questions. What if we find that one ethnic group is being charged more for a product? That would certainly be illegal for a traditional store, but would be difficult to detect online.

Sadly it's already happening and is impossible to regulate for electronic products.

One of the benefits of using a model like this is that it can make recommendations that are contradictive of human biases but still high quality.

For any hypothetical situation, "What if AI makes this unethical recommendation?", we can't actually answer this question unless it happens, because as humans, the reasoning behind such a situation are hard for us to imagine in a hypothetical.

> AI-powered price discrimination

They do make a point of saying "The cost of a subscription doesn’t vary based on a reader’s score", probably for exactly the reasons you cite -- that's some murky untested law to wade into. I'm sure no company wants to be the first to have to base their defense on "but the AI did it!"

A discriminatory paywall has a similar effect as discriminatory pricing, but feels like safer legal territory because it happens before money changes hands.

(But does it still count as discrimination if you give the product away for free, but only to certain types of customer?)

I've always thought that a possible compromise between per article micro-payments of a few cents and monthly subscriptions might be daily or weekly one off payments.

You could visit a site and read an article or two for free so you have some idea of the quality and then have the option of paying something like $2-5 for full access for a day or week with no obligation to unsubscribe because it really is a simple payment - like purchasing the daily/weekly paper.

This might work better for online magazines or blogs that publish relatively few articles than for newspapers that feel they may have a better chance of attracting traditional subscribers.

Like paying $1 for today's print paper at your local news stand?


You wouldn't have to use this as a replacement for the more traditional subscription because that would still offer much better value (just as subscribing to printed newspapers does).

Meh. I get to see the front page, but can only read teasers, not full articles :( And it did try to grab a screen fingerprint. I'm using Firefox in private browsing mode, through a VPN service with an exit in Germany.

How do you know it tried to do that?

Canvas Defender warned me.

Wow, everyone is trying to fingerprint me, even sober journalism sites like the Neiman Lab. Thanks for pointing me to this tool.

I really really hope that the "propensity score" doesn't try to check whether you have subscribed to other news sites in the past. I'm worried that a) it would work pretty well in the short term, and b) because it works it would spread.

In a few years, if all the sites were doing this, then anyone who pays for journalism at at one site could find their propensity score raised, and encounter paywalls everywhere else. The last thing we should want is for consumers to internalize the notion that "only suckers pay for journalism because then you get locked out of the rest of the internet".

Sort of like how people can be reluctant to ever give money to any charity because they know it will sell their info to other charities and they will be inundated with junk mail.

How would it determine whether or not you've subscribed to other news sites?

Correlate your unique identifier with credit card transaction data? Maybe ad networks provide this information as part of a profile?

Bingo. I get mailed magazine offers that can only be because of other magazines I subscribe to. If that sort of info sharing is already happening in the print world, it must be happening on the digital side as well.

Long ago, news ltd offered me a 10:1 pricebreak to sign up for a year. I got the national flagship paper delivered all week including the saturday funnies for a dollar.

It was a classic 'boil the frog slowly' campaign. I boosted their print circulation numbers and over the next five years I barely noticed the increments until I paid full price.

I stopped because Murdoch press is toxic. But the trick undoubtedly worked.

The up front paywall costs we're exposed to are far higher than the 'free option' choices. 2c is closer to free than $2 is in my own mental barrier. If we had a sensible marginal cost micropayments framework, I would subscribe initially to a lot of press for 2c per day, and probably tolerate the incremental costs.

the WSJ headline offer is $1 for two months. Thats damn close to my margins. I think they've got the message.

The AFR, an Australian equivalent, want to give me a month free but then $69 per month. I don't think they understand kitchen-sink economics as well as either Mrs Thatcher, or the WSJ.

I would never subscribe to the WSJ. Wonder if they will pick this up?

I wonder if they plan on selling this approach to other companies?

I have to commend WSJ, not a fan of paywalls but at least they're trying to innovate within the space.

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