Frustrations over Lee Enterprises' new online metered paywall in Montana and Wyoming have manifested themselves in an interesting—albeit not unprecedented—way. As readers aired their grievances on newspaper comment boards at the Missoulian, the Helena Independent-Record, the Billings Gazette and others, some web-savvy news consumers were already exploring ways to get for free what they always have. One individual in particular, who claims to be a Lee employee and appears to have significant technical insight into the new metered payment system, set about teaching others how to do the same.
Under the moniker "around_lee_paywall," the aforementioned techie outlines how to disable Lee's new paywall on two different browsers: Google Chrome and Firefox. Additional instructions for Internet Explorer are "forthcoming," the post reads. Around_lee_paywall states that he/she "has made arguments against the 'paywall' from the very beginning" and listed three key reasons why. [For a screenshot of the original Reddit posting, look below the fold]
Editors at each newspaper now subject to the payment system made their reasons quite clear, both in their own publications and elsewhere. The Indy's own Skylar Browning blogged about the various explanations on Monday. Newsandtech.com, the website of the quarterly trade publication Newspapers and Technology Magazine, quoted a column by Helena I-R and Montana Standard editor Gerry O'Brien:
"The key to keep in mind is that our local content is generated by local reporters, photographers, editors and other staff," O'Brien wrote. "Their hard work is certainly worth something to our readers, as evidenced by our longtime newspaper subscribers. So it's time to start charging for our work online. It's a testament to the value of our staff."
Missoulian editor Sherry Devlin offers more of her take on how the payment system is a positive development—for the industry and her paper alike—in tomorrow's issue of the Independent, in a news brief written by Matthew Frank.
The appearance of around_lee_paywall's workarounds is hardly precedent setting, however. When The New York Times instituted its online payment system about four months ago, readers began hunting for similar ways to continue getting their news for free. One option waiting in the wings was BreakthePaywall!, a free web add-on created for Internet Explorer users. The web designers behind the add-on have recognized a growing trend in pay-to-view content, from the Wall Street Journal to the Casper Star-Tribune; a version for Firefox is "coming soon!"
Yet the impact of these paywall disabling schemes seems limited to date. Despite the wealth of possible workarounds, The New York Times last week reported 224,000 digital subscribers in the first four months of its paywall. And, as Reuters blogger Felix Salmon pointed out on July 26, revenue from online subscriptions will still be "a drop in the bucket" compared to NYT's total annual revenues.