An Idea for The Times’ Pay Wall

In the month or so since The New York Times officially launched its new site design, I’ve found that I like it more and more. As I said back then, it’s impossible for me to be objective, but after repeated, daily use, I’m thoroughly convinced that it’s a good design.

I don’t agree with every decision that went into it, but I find that most of them work very well. In particular, the use of the company’s proprietary cuts of the typefaces Cheltenham and Franklin Gothic elevates their news presentation significantly. Articles and headlines are now a real pleasure to read.

That said, I can’t help but lament the fact that the site did not undertake even more substantial changes to its overall experience. Specifically, as a reluctant, intermittently enthusiastic and resentful customer of the Times’ famous pay wall, I find myself wishing that the redesign had delivered a bit more value for subscribers.

I have a list of half-formed feature ideas along those lines, but here is my favorite.

Credit Report

There’s a certain pride inherent in paying for the Times’ brand of top shelf journalism. It’s not just about buying a product, it’s a worldview, a way of declaring what matters to you. You can see this all over the country, where people proudly read paper issues of the Times in their local coffee shops, hundreds or thousands of miles from Manhattan.

Digital customers rarely get the opportunity to demonstrate that pride, but I think that’s something that could be restored fairly easily. What if, when I share articles from NYTimes.com, I got a bit of credit for sharing it?

Say I tweet out a link to this article while logged in as a paid subscriber. The link I share could be unique, and carry a little bit of extra information identifying me as the person who shared it. And when others click on the link, the site could dynamically include a subtle banner at the top of the article, with that credit clearly displayed. It might look something like this:

Crediting users for sharing articles.

Any time that article is re-shared or re-tweeted with the same, unique link that I generated, it would carry that same banner. If I happen to drive lots of traffic to the article, everyone will see that it was me who originally shared it.

The next logical step might be to build out user pages on NYTimes.com, where perhaps I could check my stats to see how many people clicked through on my share link, and from there maybe even add a social following dynamic native to NYTimes.com, so that people could follow future shares that I post.

That could be nice, but I think it would be overkill, as it gets away from the itch that this feature aims to scratch. Even in its most basic form, this feature would cement a connection between me, the subscriber, and the brand. People are very passionate about the Times, especially those who are willing to forgive its tricky, frankly manipulative pricing structure and pay for digital access to its content.

The simple act of crediting subscribers for sharing what they love could be sufficiently powerful in and of itself, even without the added cruft of viewing stats. It would let people like me make a statement to the world that I pay for great journalism, which is a small but meaningful form of participation.

It would also solve another problem for the company: right now, people have no idea who among their friends are subscribers, so most readers have no social context for their decision to pay — or not to pay, as the case may be.

But in a scenario where shares are credited, non-subscribers might start to become aware that a disproportionately high number of the people they like and respect are in fact paying customers of The New York Times. Social proof — or, if you prefer, peer pressure — like this really resonates with people, and could lead to gains in subscriber numbers purely from the raised awareness. It could also go a long way towards sustaining the health of the company’s brand as it navigates an increasingly difficult industry landscape, changing its perception from a brand that is shared a lot and paid for by unknown strangers to one that is shared a lot and is paid for by people you know and respect.

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