The LJS Paywall in Action

July 30, 2012 at 1:25pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

The LJS paywall that I brought up yesterday is now in effect. What does it look like? Let’s check it out.

After browsing around the site for a bit I first encountered this modal window:

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(A modal window, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, is a small window within your main browser window that blocks user interaction with the content behind it.)

There’s nothing particularly surprising about this window. It’s a friendly reminder that I’ve viewed 5 of my 10 free “premium” (cough) pages for a given 30-day period. Simple enough.

After viewing some more articles I came across this modal window:

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Er ... what? I thought I only got 10 free pages? I assume this is a launch-day glitch of some sort. I guess I have to view a few more articles. Fine ... Ahh! Finally:

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So there you have it, the LJS paywall in action. If you click “No Thanks” you are returned to the site homepage. Otherwise you can sign in or purchase access. Let’s purchase access, shall we?

I already have a journalstar.com account, so first I logged in using my email address and password. Since I’m a subscriber to the print edition, I was then asked for my phone number and zip code to associate my online account with my delivery account. Next I was given the option of a $1.95 per month payment, or $16.95 annually. I opted for the annual plan since it saves me about 25%. Finally I entered my credit card and billing information, and poof, I have a year’s worth of online access.

To verify that my account has full access to the website I pulled up a couple other web browsers and logged in to my account in each. No more paywall in any browser. Easy enough. The down side is that I have to log in on all of my various devices (phones, Kindle, etc). Annoying, but I’ll live.

So just how much of a “wall” is this paywall? It turns out it’s about as secure as the Canadian border. I’m not going to come right out and give you the tools to circumvent it—hint: it can be done with a single line of javascript stored in a bookmarklet—but I will describe the basic technique in use. My point isn’t to make a bunch of rogue hackers out of all of you. Rather, I think the methods employed by the Journal Star shed a little light on how they’ve decided to balance ease-of-access for users with their ability to protect their content.

As I mentioned above, the only thing blocking your access to the content is a modal window. The content you seek is right there underneath the modal window. All that’s happening is that a bit of javascript on the page determines that you’re over your free article limit so it applies a “window shade” element (the dark gray translucent layer) over the entire page. Then it renders the modal window on top of that. Since the determination of your permission to view the page happens after the content is sent to you by the server, blocking or removing the modal window and window shade is all one would need to do to circumvent the paywall. It’s trivially avoidable by either (a) turning off javascript in your browser, or (b) using your browser’s web inspector (or a 3rd party tool like Firebug) to remove the blocking elements. Most of you have no idea what I just said, and that’s what the Journal Star is banking on.

It also turns out that only a single browser cookie stands between the user and the content. Change the value of the cookie (or delete it) and you’re good to go. Again, if you know what to look for this is beyond trivial to circumvent. Most Journal Star customers don’t so the paywall ultimately works.

The balance here is reasonable. The vast majority of LJS readers will respect the paywall, either paying to get behind it or dropping the site as a regular resource. A few hooligans will figure out what took me all of 30 seconds to discover and they’ll never have to pay. The LJS could take greater steps to make avoiding the paywall more difficult or even impossible, but at the same time they would risk making site access less convenient for the 98% of users who just want to read the latest Cindy Lange-Kubick column. That risk isn’t worth the reward.

There you have it, folks. The LJS paywall we’ve long known would arrive finally has. A new era in local media has begun.

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The Comments

Gerard Harbison July 30, 2012 at 2:59pm

You actually paid them money. Oh. My. God. I’d pay $10 a month NOT to have to read CLK.

But thanks for the useful research grin. Not quite as easy as the NYTimes paywall, but not much of a challenge.

Derek July 30, 2012 at 3:03pm

You can block the elements in question and AdBlock on Chrome and never see them again as well (at least for now)

Mr. Wilson July 30, 2012 at 3:26pm

Er ... yeah. I thought I mentioned that in my post but I left it out. Derp. But yes, any ad-blocking browser extension that can target user-specified elements—in other words, pretty much every decent ad-blocking extension—can block the paywall elements.

trub July 30, 2012 at 3:32pm

I would have to think that the ultimate goal here is to link your real-world info to an online account and to page-viewing habits. That data has got to be worth a fair chunk of change on top of the additional online subscription fee and ad clicks.

Fletch July 30, 2012 at 3:58pm

Don’t be so public about to how to circumvent it. They may grow brains and fix the loopholes. I hope the $16.95 you laid out won’t cause a huge spike in the price of my Lincolnite access.

Mr. Wilson July 30, 2012 at 4:17pm

Now’s as good a time as any to announce this: Lincolnite.com access prices are set to jump 15% on August 1.

BigMike July 30, 2012 at 8:31pm

So, either there aren’t many LJS online readers, or you grossly overestimate the number of people that actually read Cindy Lange-Kubick articles, or your using a little sarcasm there.

Fletch July 31, 2012 at 1:44pm

Not that there is anything scientific to their question, but Jack and John from KLIN asked on their FB yesterday if people would pay for online access. Not a singled person responded yes. I think it’s going to be a tougher sell than the LJS thinks.

Also, almost universally, the opinion seems to be that it should be a freebie to paid 7-day paper subscribers.

Jason August 2, 2012 at 3:53pm

A wired.com article talks about the success of the NY Times paywall despite being easy to circumvent.

In the end, I think that the LJS is going to niche their audience. Only so many CLK and Kent Wolgamott fans. But - to Lee that doesn’t matter. These people weren’t paying before so there is no apparent net loss (on the balance sheet). They essentially opened a new revenue stream, picking low-hanging fruit for quick profits and a positive return to their stakeholders, holders of a company recently bankrupt and stock dwindling.

But growing that audience…they’re going to have to come up with better content.

http://www.wired.com/business/2011/08/new-york-times-paywall/

CS August 3, 2012 at 12:20pm

Well, there are always those that don’t know how to use Adblock extensions and the like, or dutifully click on the ‘pay now’ option instead of “Exit” when the nagwall comes up. Nice the know the LJS seems to be basing part of it’s revenue stream on those that aren’t as aware of browsers and their capabilities.

Mr. Wilson August 3, 2012 at 1:45pm

That’s like saying “Nice to know the music companies seem to be basing part of its revenue stream on those that aren’t as aware of Pirate Bay”. Well, that’s not a perfect analogy but I think you see what I mean grin

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