Don’t read all about it: all quiet on NotW paywall front

Something’s bugging NORMAN GILLER, and it isn’t his mobile phone. Before the online version of the News of the World disappears behind its own paywall, he’s asking how many people are actually reading the web versions of News International’s papers?

I wonder if I can use the Freedom of Information Act to get somebody at News International to tell me what’s really going on behind their paywalls? Or perhaps I could hack into the phone calls of chief executive Rebekah Brooks, one of just a handful of trusted people who know all the answers?

As the News of the World website prepares to join The Times and Sunday Times as subscription-only this month (“imminently”, we are told), a curtain of silence has dropped at Wapping. Or perhaps that should be a wall of secrecy?

As you would expect, the NotW is going to be brasher and more downmarket with their promotion. Hopefully for all at Wapping, the marketing will make more impact than that for their Times stablemates.

One of their leading online columnists confided: “The awfully pretentious commercials would not entice me to buy a toffee apple let alone an annual online subscription to The Times.”

You don’t need 20/20 vision to notice that while the advert’s voice-over goes on about the £1 trial for 30 days, down the bottom of the screen is the message that – after the trial – the monthly subscription will be £8.66, adding up to £104 for the year.

The viewer will be thinking: “Hold on, I can get the Daily Mail, Guardian, Independent, Daily Mirror and the BBC online for nothing.”

The NotW has three TV adverts lined up, the first of which has been airing this week. It features a wife catching her husband in bed with another woman and saying how sick she feels over a story she has read about John Terry’s bed adventures in the News of the World.

How that is going to turn anybody on to the website beats me.

They have started the come-ons on the existing News of the World free site. Anybody taking up the £1 a day subscription or £1.99 for four weeks’ access to a revamped website are offered the chance to win a year’s worth of shopping at Tesco, a 47″ 3D-ready TV plus Sky subscription for a year, or a makeover and photoshoot with the Fabulous team worth more than £5,000.

As revealed here last year, the NI masterplan is to make sport a main thrust of their online offerings, and video is going to be even more important in pulling in subscribers. The recent Pakistan spot-fixing revelations were powerful enough in the newspaper, but when seen online with video of the deal being done, it was a great example of how journalism online can complement and reinforce print.

I have excellent contacts at Fortress Wapping, but each of them admits they have no idea of how many online subscriptions have been registered for The Times or Sunday Times since they erected their paywall earlier this year. As the Murdoch papers are never usually shy about coming forward to trumpet their successes, should we conclude from this silence that things are not going as well as they might have hoped?

Plans are advanced for The Sun to be hidden behind the paywall, but there is a school of thought gaining support that this should be delayed rather than give the online Mail ­– still free and increasingly popular less competition for online readers. Both cover the same territory of celebrity reporting, with the emphasis on scandal and sensation.

Our sources suggest that plans are advanced for The Sun‘s paywall, but no launch date is fixed. “It is still a new area, with new products, techniques and technology changing by the day.”

The Mail claims more than 40 million hits a month, while The Times online following has fallen away since the paywall was erected.

Talk privately to Times columnists and they admit they are frustrated by their sudden loss of voice and influence on line. One prominent blogger told me: “Before the paywall, I could count the people commenting on my views in their hundreds, sometimes thousands. Now it is down to dozens. It is very depressing. More people read the Beano.”

As the News of the World gets ready to go behind the paywall, I wish Editor Colin Myler and his team the best of luck, because in the long run it would benefit all journalists if the internet can be made to pay.

But I think it will be easier to get spectators to watch the Commonwealth Games in Delhi than attract subscribers to online newspapers.

I LOST an old friend this week when master clown Sir Norman Wisdom passed on to the great stage in the sky at the age of 95.

When I was Reg Gutteridge’s copyboy on the late, lamented London Evening News, Norman was a regular visitor to our office. He had been an Army flyweight champion and would call in to discuss boxing with Reg.

Comedy king: Norman Wisdom

He had just made the breakthrough to stardom following his debut film Trouble in Store and used to have us in hysterics with his clowning, including dancing with the one-legged Reg. He would mime a boxing contest with himself and knock himself out.

Reg and Norman were so close that he did not charge a penny for Reg to write a week-long serialisation of his remarkable life.

As I was another Norman, he always called me “Norman 2”. I was a 15-year-old kid from the East End and was in awe of “Norman 1”, the film star. But never once did he come the big-I-am. From day one, he treated me as an equal.

I got to know Norman well in my Express days and then as a member of the This Is Your Life scriptwriting team, when Norman was a regular on the shows. I squared the circle when it eventually came around to Reg Gutteridge to be given the This Is Your Life treatment, and I scripted the tribute from Michael Aspel. Norman Wisdom was one of the guests.

As Norman came on to the set he performed a trademark pratfall that almost made Michael Aspel drop the Big Red Book.

He could have an audience convulsed without uttering a single word.

I used to ghostwrite Billy Wright’s Express column when he was Arsenal manager, and would meet him every Monday morning in his Highbury office. One particular Monday, after Arsenal had been knocked out of the FA Cup by Peterborough, I dreaded seeing Billy who I thought was sure to be in a black mood.

As I approached his office I was surprised to hear loud laughter. Norman, who followed Arsenal and was a mate of Billy and his wife Joy, of the Beverley Sisters, was rolling on the floor, and Billy had tears rolling down his cheeks.

“All he said,” Billy told me as he wiped his eyes, “is that next week I should play the Bevs.”

They don’t make them like Norman Wisdom any more. We laughed at him because he was a fool.

Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here