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The NY Times Paywall Goes Up. When Is It Immoral to Go Around It?

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This afternoon, the digital paywall goes up at the New York Times. The Times’ effort to charge online has begun to be treated like the Helm’s Deep of journalism: a last, best stand by the forces of light against the ravening hordes of aggregation and bankruptcy. (Last week’s 30 Rock, about the decline of writing, was a kind of indirect endorsement for it, down to the vision of an abandoned newspaper box: “It’s a toilet! Or a woman! It’s whatever you need it to be!”)

Since criticizing the Times’ plan now risks your looking like an enemy of enlightenment and a champion of ignorance, let me say up front: I’m going to pay, and I’ve been subscribing to the New York Times since well before I could really afford it.

But the argument over the paywall has taken on a strangely moral cast for what is, after all, a business decision by a for-profit company. At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow—who admits that he is against charging for news regardless—cited eight reasons he thinks the paywall will fail. Advertising Age’s Simon Dumeneco responded with a column that said, essentially, that people should pay for the Times because it has reporters risking their lives in Libya (unlike Boing Boing).

All of which may feel satisfying to argue. But the whole argument is based on a conundrum that would challenge the NYT magazine’s Ethicist columnist: when exactly is it immoral to go around the Times’ paywall, considering that the Times intentionally put the holes in the wall itself?

I won’t go into all the ins and outs of the paywall’s workings (see here for the Times’ FAQ). But essentially, you pay a certain rate for different kinds of unlimited access—web plus smartphone or tablet or both. Free web visits are limited to 20 articles a month. But the number of articles you can read if you access them through outside links (from blogs, Facebook, etc.) are almost unlimited. [Update: also, if like me you already subscribe to the paper version, you get digital access included.]

This is deliberate: the Times doesn’t want to lose the relevance that comes from being linked. But it also wants money, which it won’t get if you—legitimately, by its own design—read it mostly through social media and other linkers. In the eyes of the Times and its defenders, in other words, there is a certain level of reading for free that becomes freeloading. But it will deliberately not say what that is.

This is a new area of online ethics. If I torrent a movie or an album that I can legally obtain only through purchase (of a disc or a download), I’m stealing. That seems clear to me: the maker of the work could offer me a free way of getting it, but chooses not to.

The Times, on the other hand, is enabling—again, entirely intentionally—ways of reading it for free, but suggesting (or, for its defenders, outright saying) that some undetermined point on that slippery slope becomes stealing.

In the physical world, we have social norms that set these rules. Most of us would accept that you can go to the grocery store and get a free sample from the table in the cheese aisle, but if you tie on a napkin and make dinner of it, you’re a jackass. In the nonphysical, digital world, though, it’s different. To an extent, the Times—and everyone else—encourage sharing, on Twitter, blogs and so on. Its business model depends on you taking those slices of gouda on a cracker, so to speak, and handing them out to your friends.

I can’t say personally when sampling becomes stealing here. I’m paying for the Times because it’s worth it to me; I want the paper to exist, and it’s worth the money to me to have access to it hassle-free whenever I want. If it’s not worth it to you, fine; I do not consider you an enemy of civilization. But if someone goes through the trouble of, say, downloading an app that allows them to visit the Times site undetected every day without paying, that seems skeevy. But where does sampling end and skeevy begin? Calling the Ethicist!

That the Times, quite deliberately, does not draw that line, kind of makes the paywall something like a glorified tip jar, on a massive scale—something you choose to contribute to without compulsion because it is the right thing, like the “suggested donation” box at a museum. The problem: the Times is not a museum. It’s a for-profit company, with owners and shareholders and executive salaries.

It’s possible for a business to make that moral argument, but it’s tricky; it worked for American automakers for a while, say, in my home state of Michigan, but the argument got weaker with time and geography, especially as they started shipping jobs overseas. I think the Times is the greatest paper in the country, and I want it to survive. But if it needs the paywall to survive, then it’s depending on us to develop an entirely new principle of ethics.

That, or it has to make a more direct, and businesslike, argument: that it’s worth your money.

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