A Flimsy Wall

02 Jul 2013

Esquire recently released an article detailing the author of Proof of Heaven and his questionable claims and background. To supplement this type of story, they have implemented a per-article paywall. Unfortunately, it is not well implemented, easily passed, and ends up only charging the misinformed. When you access the link to the article, you are brought to the following screen. Which reads:

A note from Editor in Chief David Granger: Dr. Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife has sold nearly two million copies and remained on best-seller lists for over 35 weeks. But a months-long investigation of Dr. Alexander's past and some of the book's claims reveals a series of factual omissions and inconsistencies that call significant parts of Dr. Alexander’s story into question. Before he was a celebrated "man of science" who visited the afterlife, Dr. Alexander was something else: a neurosurgeon with a troubled history and a man in need of reinvention.
This is the first time we've asked online readers to pay for a story, but for good reason: Because stories like Dittrich's matter and they don't come along often. Because great journalism—and the months that go into creating it—isn't free. So, besides providing the story to readers of our print and digital-tablet versions of the August issue, we are offering it to online readers as a stand-alone purchase. Thank you. —DG

Journalism has hit a tough spot in recent years in terms of revenue. With magazines and newspapers consistently closing their doors, these publications are getting desperate for new forms of income besides posting banner ads - which itself is no more than a relic of print advertising from years past. The paywall has been a recent favorite of the industry, supported by heavyweights like the New York Times.

However, Esquire's recent paywall is so loose that the wall really doesn't cover anything. Viewing the article is as simple as opening up Web Inspector and typing in a few characters.

Here's the overlay div that holds the "paywall".

Just add display:none to the element, and the paywall goes away.

Add `display:none`
No more paywall

A little too easy?

An explanation for this hole is that Esquire is taking the same route as NYTimes did earlier, in keeping the paywall loose until they understand the implications, then tightening it later. This is still odd to me though, for two conflicting reasons.

  1. The wording on the paywall suggests that this is a necessary step and that users should be forced to pay (I am not necessarily arguing against this)
  2. The fact that the paywall is so easy to breakthrough suggests that they realize that it can be beaten, and that readers should feel a moral obligation to pay to read the material

If the first was true, then it would be completely understandable to set a strict paywall using something other than some CSS to block non-paid users from reading. However if the second was true, why put up the front in the first place? Why not implement a pay-what-you-want or donate system similar to entertainment mediums like Humble Bundle in videogames or Radiohead in music? It seems that they don't trust readers to pay if they have an up-front choice, but still trust them enough not to use a 5 second tweak to get past the payment all together.

The possible repercussions of the stance?

  • Somewhat technically-savvy readers get a free read
  • The moral obligation of the pay-what-you-want system is lost
  • Esquire doesn't get the credit for being reader-friendly and trusting their users
  • Users who don't want to pay $2 for 5 minutes of reading immediately turn away
  • No one is happy

Seems like a lose-lose situation to me.

Esquire's Flimsy Wall