On (Other People’s) Paywalls


I tried. Really. But many of you still hit a paywall last week — not mine, but the New York Times’ one. Now I Know doesn’t have a paywall and almost certainly never will. I’ll talk about that in a bit. But first, let’s talk about the debacle last week.

Last Friday, I shared the Times’ fantastic dialect quiz from a decade ago, and I thought the link I shared was a “gift link,” meaning that a subscriber (in this case, me) gave access to a friend (you) who is, presumably, a non-subscriber. But I guess it wasn’t — and I can’t quite figure out how to make one now — because a lot of you wrote back to tell me that the quiz was behind their paywall. 

I’m sorry about that. I try not to recommend longreads behind paywalls because I don’t know what you’re subscribed to and what you’re not, and I’m not in the business of sharing stories you can’t read. This was worse, of course, because this wasn’t a longread I shared at the bottom of the email; it was the main thrust of last Friday’s newsletter. If you hit the Times’ paywall and couldn’t get through, there’s really not much I can do about it.

So instead, I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about paywalls more generally. I’m not against them, either in principle or in practice; great journalism, creative writing, and all of the other content we consume needs money to make it go. A movie ticket is a paywall, the monthly subscription to Netflix or Disney+ or Max is a paywall, and even newspaper and magazine subscriptions back in the day were paywalls. For some reason, “writing” plus “on the Internet” is expected to be free, and I don’t agree that needs to be the case.

But if you’re looking to shape ideas or, in my case, just share interesting things you’ve learned, it’s really hard to justify a paywall from a strategic perspective. I’ve been (very slowly) reading the book “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek (ironically, for free, a borrowed an e-copy from the local library) and its main takeaway applies here. Organizations — and media companies like the New York Times or solo-ish projects like Now I Know are included in this — need to define their purpose for existing if they want to succeed. That’s their “Why.” And then, everything else they do — how they do it and what they actually do — needs to pay off that “why.” And I think a lot of publications lose sight of that. The New York Times’s purpose/”why” is, or at least should be, to advance society by creating an informed populace. Their “how” is through journalism, and their “what” is the website, newspaper, etc. To achieve their goal, though, people need to be able to access their content, and paywalls get in the way of that. It’s a tricky situation.

Now I Know’s why is to bring joy through the shared experience of discovery, or something like that. Basically, I like learning new things but I really like sharing what I’ve learned about. My “how” is through storytelling (as opposed to just sharing a 15-word fun fact) and the “what” is primarily the newsletter, and to a lesser degree my books, audiobooks, and the long-mothballed YouTube channel. Having a paywall would fly in the face of that — and it’s not lost on me that the books and audiobooks aren’t free — as I lose the ability to share if I make you pay first. For me, it’s not a very tricky decision. A paywall is contrary to my mission of sharing.

The problem, of course, is finding ways to make any publication sustainable while also reaching that purpose. I’m not here to ask you to help me do that — maybe next week! — so don’t worry about it insofar as Now I Know is concerned. When it comes to the Times, though, I think we should be very forgiving when things like that dialect quiz are pay-to-play. That quiz doesn’t neatly bubble up to the paper’s purpose, at least not how I articulated it. (Yes, I could make a case that it fosters and understanding of how similar people are still different in ways, or something like that, but it’d be a weak case.) It’s the type of content that the Times’ core audience loves but isn’t really about advancing society by creating an informed populace, and it’s exactly the type of add-on that they should charge for. Same with their crosswords, cooking section, and a few other things.

So I’m sorry that the Times quiz was behind a paywall and I wasn’t able to get you around it. But I don’t blame the Times for trying to keep the lights on, and I applaud that they’re doing so in that way. Paywalling news and their long-form journalism — well, I get why they do it, but I think it’s long-term detrimental to their business and brand. But unless they can find another way to fund that content, they — and we — are stuck with it.

The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: Why a Pair of British Officials Watched Paint Dry: The movie isn’t the art; the art is the other parts of the story.

Tuesday: Why Bermuda’s Roofs All Look The Same: Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

Wednesday: The Bubble Gum Contest That Never Ended: It turns out, there’s a July 11th every year.

Thursday: Cookie Monster and The Hand with the Mind of Its Own: I’m so glad I finally decided to share this story here. I’ve been telling this story for years; I once gave a talk at my alma mater, it didn’t go well, so I quickly pivoted to this story and regained the room. It’s silly but in a fun way.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend.

1) “How To Hire a Pop Star For Your Private Party” (The New Yorker, 32 minutes, June 2023). I’m mostly surprised that this was looked down upon in the entertainment world until recently. Also, I once went to Arthur Ashe Kids Day at the U.S. (Tennis) Open and Flo Rida performed there, so technically, I’ve been to a Flo Rida concert.

2) “The Grand Canyon, a Cathedral to Time, Is Losing Its River” (The New York Times, 10 minutes, June 2023). I’m 99% sure this is a gift article and you don’t have to worry about the paywall, but the gift links are probably meant for someone to share with one or two friends, or maybe forward to 20-30 people. I sent it to tens of thousands of people, and there’s a chance the Times may not appreciate that and shut that down. If that happens, sorry in advance!

3) “The Untold Tale of the Artichoke Parm, the Most Mysterious Sandwich in Brooklyn” (Bon Appetit, 13 minutes, June 2023). I really want to try this sandwich but it’s just out of the feasible sandwich-getting range for me. (Basically, I don’t ever go to Brooklyn.) The story is great, too, but I really want to try this sandwich.

Have a great weekend!