Wednesday, April 27, 2011

NY Times Data Starting to Coalesce.

It's been almost a month since the NY Times paywall went live, and I think we finally can say a few substantive things about it.

First, since the paywall was so "leaky," there was no distinct drop-off after its installation. Compare this to the charts for Newsday:

Or this absolutely comical chart for the Times of London:

The NY Times' 24 month chart isn't nearly as dramatic;

but I suspect that's because their paywall is so loose. You can sidestep it by simply blocking Javascript, or downloading a little Javscript shortcut, or by coming in via Google or Yahoo, or via a link on Facebook or Twitter. Essentially, as long as you don't go to the Times via their home page, you never have to pay. Which seems to sorta' defeat the purpose of a paywall, but whatever.

Even though the leaky paywall is preventing a dramatic and newsworthy drop in readership, there are some data to be gleaned.

First off, while the Alexa Rank numbers are only mildly affected, the page views have been significantly moved.

Zooming in to the 6-month chart the effects are more apparent:

They have dropped, certainly, but they have also stopped fluctuating with the ebb and flow of internet traffic. This is troubling, since on a healthy website, growth comes from that very ebb and flow. Very tight numbers means that your audience is flatlining. While this means you have a stable audience, when you do lose audience members, it's very difficult to replace them.

If we again zoom in to the 6-month scale on the chart, we can also discern a little bit of possibly-relevant data.

Looking back on the 24-month chart, the Times was, slowly sometimes, trending upwards in readership and global rank. This trend possibly may have broken, with the Times' rank the lowest it's been since December of last year. This is troubling since the Times' most popular general audience competitor,, has been flat for the past two years. But even on this scale, we can see that while the heavy flow of news appears to have given CNN a boost in their readers, the Times has received no such boost and has, in fact, reverted to even lower numbers. CNN might break 50 and stay there in the next few months.

If we compare the NY Times to their biggest philosophical competitor, the LA Times, we see that the LA Times are growing while the NY Times is not.

All websites exhibit a great amount of fluctuation, so this past month is not enough to extrapolate long-term trends. The important fact to take away, though, is that while other websites went up, the NY Times went down. Both CNN and the LA Times are heading towards milestones on Alexa, with the former reaching for the 50th most popular website on Earth, and the latter heading toward 300.

I still think that it's too early to call the paywall a complete failure, but those page view numbers should be troubling for the Times executives. The nature of the paywall means that large chunks of the Times' audience could suddenly leave, resulting in shocking drops in readership. I think that this is a possibility because the paywall works via some Javascript that tracks article views. After twenty articles are viewed, the page is blocked asking for payment. With five daily views via Google, and unlimited numbers from Facebook and other social tools, it will take time for people to hit the wall a sufficient number of times to annoy them enough to simply stop going. Ironically, I think that this will make times of elevated news stories problematic for the Times, since people are more likely to hit the wall quickly and repeatedly, and since they won't care to pay when options like the BBC, CNN, LA Times, and Reuters are available much more quickly, they'll more likely to leave, find that they enjoy another website, and never return.

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