How to read articles on websites that don’t want you to read their articles

This is an article about bypassing pseudo-paywalls on websites that are on the open web but which stop you reading after a certain point.

Before I go further, I do happily pay for three article-based websites: The Guardian, The Atlantic and New York Magazine (specifically for the Vulture section). They all cost £50 or $50 a year. I have paid for others in the past. My policy is once a website has a shortcut on my phone home screen for a few months, and I’m browsing the home page a couple of times a day, I start paying for it. Since this is currently about £3 a week I’m not averse to increasing this number and may well do when I review my media consumption over the Xmas break.

The Guardian doesn’t have a paywall. The Atlantic implemented a paywall last month. New York Mag seems to only implement their paywall on desktop, not mobile, which is weird but hey.

I don’t only read articles from those three sites. I read articles from all over the internet by following links from people who I respect, like Jason Kottke or John Naughton. A lot of these articles will be on websites that have 3-and-you’re-out paywalls, which given the amount of links I follow (but don’t necessarily read) I tend to hit pretty quickly.

I’m not a fan of paywalls for good news sites. I like how the Guardian takes memberships but doesn’t give any exclusive perks (other than a really good quality tote bag, which is so Guardian in such a lovely way). Everything they publish is available for the whole world to read. As someone who agrees with a fair chunk of what the Guardian publishes and thinks the world would be a better place is more people were able to think about the world in this way, I like being able to support that. You can call it patronage or unlocking the commons and it’s quite distinct from being a customer. Having worked in retail and seen the customer dynamic first hand, I like that.

The Atlantic used to be like the Guardian. They offered a few exclusives but on the whole everything from the magazine and website was free to access for everyone. But they obviously got scared this year and implemented a paywall. I’m not happy about this but I do still read a lot of the site so I’m happy to keep paying. But it saddens me that should I want to share one of the articles I think are important there’s a chance they’ll be blocked. (I also have to sign in now, which is mild annoyance.)

(I read NY Mag’s Vulture purely for the TV recaps which are very good but not particularly essential to the health of our societies, so I’m really just a customer for this one, which is fine.)

I actually respect sites that have gone full-paywall. I’d probably enjoy bits of the Financial Times but I’ll never know, and that’s OK. And the world is probably a better place without the batshit insanity that the Telegraph has become of late polluting the open web. Strange to think I used to actually buy that paper on occasion, back when I would actually buy papers.

But if you really don’t want me to read your stuff, if you really don’t want to be part of the commons, that’s great. You be you.

What bugs me are the sites that want to benefit from the open, link-sharing internet but don’t trust their regular readers to support them, or don’t see that their oft-stated missions as journalists would be better served by getting their stuff as widely read as possible, so they put up these timed gates.

Thankfully you can get around them fairly easily. Because you’re not signed in, they track your article limit using a cookie. Once that cookie has been triggered a specific number of times, you access is revoked. So if there’s no cookie then you haven’t technically read anything yet.

I’m not a fan of napalming my cookies folder and it’s very fiddly to delete individual cookies, so I have a bunch of other strategies.

The simplest thing is to open the page in a “private” or “incognito” window. This leaves no record of the page in your history but, more usefully, doesn’t let the site access any cookies set in your normal windows. You are fresh as the virgin snow. Lovely.

Now, some sites, like the New Yorker, have cottoned on to this and will block you if they see you are private browsing, so you need another tactic.

In the case of the New Yorker, you might have noticed the article appears for a second before the blocking window kicks in and obscures it. That means it’s been loaded onto your machine already. You have it, you just can’t see it. The quickest way to get around this is to invoke the Reader view for the page.

This is usually a button that looks like a document (horizontal lines) and is a feature on Firefox and Safari. It’s very useful for reading an article that has terrible typeface choices because it strips away all the bad design and just gives you a page of simple, readable text in a font-size that doesn’t need glasses. I LOVE the Reader view.

Reader views work by looking at the raw HTML of the page and just showing the textual content. This isn’t infallible, but for sites that mainly publish text articles it succeeds more than it doesn’t. (The main fails are those Snow Fall style features with crazy layouts and animations, but they’re often not worth it anyway.) Next time an article is blocked, or just obscured by endless popovers and subscription bollocks that you can’t be bothered to find the X for, try just hitting that button.

Finally, there are the Read Later services. These operate in a grey area of copyright infringement where they take a copy of the article and save it for you to access later in a nicer format. I currently use Pocket which is a good starter. I don’t pretend to know the logistics but these services will usually have a copy of the article you want to read in their database so you just need to add it to your list and view it in the app.

Of course, your mileage will vary and sometimes I just close the window because it’s not worth it. But sometimes it is, and if it’s worth it enough times then there’s a very good chance I’ll take out a subscription. I’m not going to subscribe to every site I happen to click on 3 times a month. That’s crazy unreasonable.

In the good old days when news was printed in magazines and papers, one would tend to have a regular paper, bought daily-ish, and a couple regular mags. I would have the Guardian, Private Eye and something like Empire. Other publications would be browsed in newsagents like WH Smith whose staff didn’t care, or at the library, where they were available for free. You could, and would, go to the library and read the New Yorker or Nature or The Economist, maybe taking a photocopy of something particularly good.

I don’t know why all the journalistic publications embraced the open internet so willingly back in they day, I think a lot of them regret it. But I’m glad they did because it took that library experience and boosted it sky high.

Birmingham libraries have an “emagazine” service where you can download digital versions of print magazines, and that’s groovy, but they don’t have the New Yorker or the Atlantic and it’s discrete magazine units, not websites. It would be nice for my library card to give me access to paywall’ed article websites. Maybe that will come soon. But in the meanwhile, I hope this has been useful.