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NYT and Starbucks: A Real-Life Paywall?

Yesterday, the New York Times and Starbucks announced a partnership that would grant 15 free articles to digital users on the Starbucks Wi-Fi. This isn’t the first time the companies have forged a media partnership — Starbucks outlets across the country have carried a newsstand of the paper, and this loophole maneuver might draw more readers to the coffee shop (and pick up a digital subscription over time).

But is it just another paywall, buried in our real world instead of on our computers?

The Times has already clarified that the system will not allow readers to choose their articles at whim — rather, there will be an available landing page that features a mix of articles from various Times sections as well as breaking news and most-emailed and a rotating “special” section that rotates daily. All of these articles can be accessed daily, through the Starbucks Digital Network or SDN, a fancy way of referring to every store’s free Wi-Fi offerings.

It sounds like a fair enough deal, until you consider the original partnership Starbucks entertained with the publication, The Times Reader. While using the SDN, customers could access the full paper through their computers for free and at their leisure. It’s this “loophole” that Jim Romanesko has also been using for years, and he inquired about its continued existence to a Times representative in a blog yesterday. Although the representative assured Romanesko that the Reader would no longer work on SDN, his experience at a Starbucks proved otherwise.

I was able to read everything from today’s paper for free, and passed that good news along to the Times spokesperson. “Okay, I think the difference is you can’t download the reader via the portal anymore,” I was told.

The hasty cover-up of The Times Reader tells quite a different story than the one in the press release yesterday: instead of providing more access to Starbucks users, the New York Times is now actually providing less. While a user used to be able to access the paper complimentary simply by being in a store, it’s now impossible to read the paper for free while connected to the SDN. Of course, that’s just what a paywall is designed to do — create a sense of scarcity to the point where spending a few extra dollars on a subscription is worth the value. Only now, it’s based on where you read, instead of what platform you access the media.

What do you think of the partnership between the New York Times and Starbucks? Is it a cool feature or a real-life paywall? Let us know in the comments.

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