TCS Daily


Registration Still Required

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Pardon me while I engage in an Andy Rooney-esque rant, but I'm deeply unhappy. Over a year ago, I noted the growing tendency of newspaper websites to require registration, and offered some suggestions on how they might avoid irritating their readers, along with a warning:

"Make it easy: Don't present people with long lists of questions. If you do, they'll just lie anyway. (Take a look at those lists of information you collect: how many people have given their email as 'nobody@biteme.com', and do you have an implausibly large number of 97-year-old black women living in Alaska as readers? I'll bet you do.) People don't mind a little of this kind of thing -- they appreciate that you're giving your product away. But they do mind when it goes beyond 'a little' -- and their idea of "a little" is 'really, only a little.'"

The newspaper world, unaccountably, didn't follow my advice, and now you can count me among the irritated. And I'm not alone, judging by what Adam Penenberg writes in Wired News:

"I have a confession. I'm not always who or what I appear to be.

"Depending on my mood, I'm a 92-year-old spinster from Topeka whose hobbies include snowboarding, macraméé and cryptology; the CEO of a successful high- tech firm in Bumblebutt, New York, whose company has a market capitalization of four cents; or an Alaskan mango grower. What magazines do I read? Soldier of Fortune, Modern Bride, Granta and High Times. Date of birth? Dec. 7, 1941. July 4, 1976. Jan. 1, 1901. My name? Jed Clampett, Mustang Sally or Freddy Fudbuster.

"And who's responsible for my multiple personality disorder? I blame the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post -- and any other news site that requires that I register before viewing content.

Penenberg thinks that there are a lot of people doing this, and I suspect that he's right. There are also a lot of people who -- like me -- wind up registering many times with the same newspaper because it stops recognizing our old password. (My wife was recently interviewed by a reporter who boasted that her paper's web edition had 300,000 registered users. Yeah, I responded -- I'm five or six of them. Some sites work well -- the New York Times website has never given me any problems, despite years of use on many different computers -- but most don't perform at that level.)

As Penenberg notes, it's all about targeting ads. But I think that if advertisers are relying on registration data, they're either fooling themselves, or being fooled. And if newspapers think it's worth irritating their readers to target ads, they're making a big mistake, too.

Readers who register as 97-year-old black women living in Alaska will be getting ads for frostproof incontinence products, but that's not going to do anyone any good. . . .

And, at the risk of repeating myself -- well, okay, it's the certainty of repeating myself -- there's this point:

"I know you guys aren't in this for your health. Fine. But you are in it for impact -- political, journalistic, and cultural. Otherwise you'd be making refrigerators, or something. Cumbersome models that make people less willing to read cost a lot in that department.

"It's no coincidence that the British Guardian newspaper gets far more attention in the United States than its actual importance in Britain would suggest, while London's Times gets less. The Guardian has a truly first-rate Web operation: easy to read, easy to navigate, and no registration required. The Times, on the other hand, though better of late, has endured a number of dumb initiatives and false starts that have chased away a lot of web readers (including me, to some degree). (The New York Times, on the other hand, makes the registration fairly painless, doesn't require reregistration, and has been quite consistent in how it has handled the subject. It's also making money off its Web operation. Is there a lesson there?)"

Registration schemes -- especially registration schemes that don't work well, which is most of them -- turn off readers. Those readers go somewhere else. And because web surfing is often a matter of habit, once turned off they're likely not to come back.

This is especially true for media outlets that are below the top tier. I might bother to register for the New York Times -- but probably not the Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times. And nobody's going to register at 150 different sites. Penenberg joins the chorus of web users asking newspapers to get together and establish a unitary registration scheme -- one that will let people sign on once, get the cookie, and seamlessly browse all the papers. Newspapers had better follow this advice, or they'll find people using an informal alternative, like the popular BugMeNot.com password-sharing website.

The Web isn't new anymore, and newspaper people have far less excuse to be getting this stuff wrong than they had three or four years ago. Can we see some progress here, please?


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2 Comments

Terminal Irony....
That I had to register to post a comment

Me Too
I'm so many people. Fortunately, we all live so far apart I will never run into another me and the space-time continuum will not be violated.

It's great fun to see how egregious of a person you can make up. Names of infamous killers, a boy named Sue: literally anything goes!

John Dillinger (Asian female - age 37 - living in a storage rental space in the Pacific NW - no phone or TV. Enjoys skateboarding, surfing, and collects sniper rifles. Oh, and married 57 times!)

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