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The Times Paywall: The Verdict?

Ian Burrell

Untitled 1 300x225 The Times Paywall: The Verdict?The verdict, according to industry feedback I’m receiving this morning, is a thumbs down.  News International has revealed today that 105,000 people have paid up for access to the Times website since it went behind a paywall with its newly-established Sunday Times sister site. As a topline number it’s not bad, but most observers regard it as an inflated figure.

Inflated, not so much because it includes iPad and Kindle subscribers (somewhere around 30,000) but because it adds in all of those who have enagaged in any sort of transaction since the big experiment started four months ago. Some, perhaps many, of those will have drifted away after giving the walled garden a try. News International admits that many of those included in its top figure are “single copy or pay-as-you-go customers” who are far less valuable than subscribers though an important part of the business plan.

Among those least impressed by the revelations is media buyer Rob Lynam, press buyer at MEC. He said that although News International was claiming that some 50,000 people of the total were monthly subscribers to the sites, some of those would have paid just £1 for an introductory 30 day offer.

“At the launch they had the exclusive material on Peter Mandelson’s biography, they had a substantial TV campaign and heavy cross-promotion across the newspapers,” said Lynam. “With the amount of support they have given it they would have been hoping for a bigger number.”

Lynam has long been doubtful of the wisdom of charging for online access to newspaper content and he said the latest figures would not cause him to change his buying strategy. “If we had more clarification with the numbers and types of people subscribing we might look at it with more interest – but I don’t think it has been a huge success based on that.”

He also thought that News International’s inclusion of an additional 100,000 “joint digital/print subscribers” was misleading as in reality these customers were “print first and digital second”, having merely activated the online account that came with their newspaper subscription.

Other media analysts were also sceptical, saying that the positive spin that News International was presenting could not disguise the fact that online traffic had fallen from 21m a month to a combined 2.7m a month. “It will be interesting to see how The Times looks to arrest this trend,” said one media analyst. “What is clear is that if they wish to continue with a paywall they will need to reposition their offering and work harder to convince readers that a similar product cannot be found elsewhere for free.”

Both paidcontent uk, which said the numbers looked a “little meagre”, and Roy Greenslade of MediaGuardian, who said that NI had “not created a sufficiently lucrative business model”, were also largely unimpressed. Both complained that the figures released did not present a full picture but also conceded that the paywall adventure was still at an early stage.

More optimistic was Greg Hadfield, the former head of Digital Devleopment at Telegraph Media Group and now an executive at the media agency Cogapp. Hadfield tweeted “How many news websites have knowledge of 200k users?”. That comment recognises that it is the depth of the relationship with the users that is important, not just the top figure.

“News International will have an enviable amount of data about their users and readers. This data will provide immense insight that, I am sure, will inform future action as The Times and The Sunday Times step up their game,” he tells me. “In a digital world where a beta launch is established practice, these numbers – and the insight they provide – must be regarded as a step forward.”

Nonetheless, we still can’t fully assess the depth of relationship when we don’t know how many people have paid for access to a single page and how many are genuine regulars who pay weekly or monthly subs and visit the site every day. News International says it has not released more detailed data because the market is in such a state of flux.

“The message we want to convey is that people are willing to pay. If you think of where we were six months ago, that in itself is not a small statement,” says an NI source.

Importantly it knows who all these customers are, which is the first step towards replicating in the newspaper market the runaway success of the BSkyB satellite television subscription model that NI chief James Murdoch formerly oversaw. We certainly can’t write the paywall off yet.

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  • lancelotgeorge

    “News International will have an enviable amount of data about their users and readers. This data will provide immense insight…”

    Excuse me! Immense insight? Because I have supplied my name and email address which are quite probably aliases – My aunt Fanny!!!

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/IJLEWR4HKHPXZ43WDECUKSVHO4 David Cage

    It was not just the paying but the price of it for little more than the free ones are providing.

  • http://twitter.com/robbrown Rob Brown

    People were sceptical about paid for newspaper content before the Times launched its experiment. Rupert Murdoch has deep pockets but even he will have to acknowledge the cracks and switch to a different model. What’s really concerning for the Time is that there audience is still falling, down 7% in the last month. The current strategy is unsustainable http://pr-media-blog.co.uk/is-the-times-paywall-ready-to-tumble/

  • MacK

    It would be wise to remember that News International in these numbers has a second objective – to try to persuade other UK newspaper owners to also erect a paywall. The problem for the times is that if people balk at paying to access the Times – that balk is reinforced by the availability of broadsheet alternatives – the Telegraph, Independent and Guardian. If the owners of those papers can be persuaded that they too should erect a paywall – this would help make the News International paywall effective. One more reason to ask hard questions about News International’s numbers.

  • ChristopherWest

    I think you’re right, in fact I think that making the other newspapers erect a paywall is in fact their primary objective. Murdoch (sadly) can afford to keep the Times supported for a while, through the rest of his media empire. But it puts pressure on other newspapers who are struggling, to consider going behind a paywall themselves. The Times paywall makes no sense when you can get the same information for free elsewhere. But ultimately it would be suicide for the competitors to go behind paywall….they’re not propped up by Murdoch’s billions, and I think liberal, more left-leaning readers of the Independent and the Guardian would show even more aversion to paying than the Times readers, some of whom may be subscribing for ideological reasons. I think the competitors know that, so it will never happen, and I think the Times paywall experiment will ultimately fail. In an age where increasing numbers of people don’t even pay for movies and music anymore, why will they pay for a load of text?

  • ChristopherWest

    “online traffic had fallen from 21m a month to a combined 2.7m a month”

    And about a million of that is the number of times I go to the front page, look at the headlines, and go ‘Oh damn, there’s a paywall, I’ll have to read about that story elsewhere’.

  • stonedwolf

    Mind you, I’d rather have one hundred thousand quids than twenty one million nothings.

  • RichieMcCaw

    As much as i love to read news for free I cant help but feel the age of the “free internet” is coming to an end. Quality journalism has a cost and the industry has every right to expect something in return rather than give its content away for free.
    With a complete over-supply of internet advertising space and the total irrelevance of anonomous users to advertisers (google directed or otherwise) , it is a wonder how the current model has lasted so long.

  • MarjorieOrr

    Much as I applaud the attempt to make the internet pay The Times behind the paywall is not a good product. The login is off putting since it has to be re-entered every time of use which is a bore. The content is often stale with items several days old if not older. If I buy a print newspaper I don’t expect to see the same piece printed several days in a row.
    My impression is that it is under-resourced. If I didn’t have a semi-professional interest in reading it I’d certainly not pay. The free Guardian/Independent/Telegraph/Daily Mail have much stronger and fresher content.

  • MarjorieOrr

    Much as I applaud the attempt to make the internet pay The Times behind the paywall is not a good product. The login is off putting since it has to be re-entered every time of use which is a bore. The content is often stale with items several days old if not older. If I buy a print newspaper I don’t expect to see the same piece printed several days in a row.
    My impression is that it is under-resourced. If I didn’t have a semi-professional interest in reading it I’d certainly not pay. The free Guardian/Independent/Telegraph/Daily Mail have much stronger and fresher content.


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