It’s D-Day for Murdoch’s paywalls at Wapping

As they might say before a big match, the waiting is nearly over…
NORMAN GILLER on footballs and paywalls, and the importance of one to the other

Well, here we go: The Times paywall is by all accounts about to be raised like a drawbridge and only people ready to dig into their pocket or purse will get across the internet moat.

It is arguably the most important and far-reaching event for newspapers since Gutenberg invented the printing press. If it’s a success, newspapers across the globe will follow Rupert Murdoch’s lead.

If it is not, the crippling crisis facing the traditional newspapers will worsen to a degree where several will go to the wall.

Walls are playing on my mind as I write this blog during a break in the World Cup marathon (which has been much more refreshing and enjoyable since England slunk away).

When I was a kid growing up in the East End, I lived 50 yards from the Wapping Walls, a 20 foot high barrier that kept intruders out of the docks. I used to kick a ball against the walls for hours on end, dreaming of being the next Stanley Matthews. Unfortunately, too many balls went over rather than against the walls, and I eventually had to concede I played more like Jesse Matthews than Stanley.

Sixty (gulp) years on, the News International headquarters are nestling where the Wapping Walls used to be, and by all reports are to erect a wall of a difficult kind this weekend to to keep people out, at least, for now, from The Times and Sunday Times.

The signs are not good. Web analysts Hitwise have released figures revealing that The Times‘s online audience share almost halved from the moment earlier this year when they started asking visitors to register. And this for a free trial. So how will potential readers react when instructed to cough up £1 a day or £2 a week?

It doesn’t sound much, does it? But I am an expert on knowing it’s easier to get goals out of Emile Heskey than to get website visitors to go through the rigmarole of parting with cash online.

A poll by YouGov confirms that people remain reluctant to pay for online content, with 83 per cent saying they would refuse to pay. Only 2 per cent are prepared to shell out for online content in the current format, while a further 4 per cent would pay on the grounds that content was not available anywhere else.

I have a following of several thousand on three Facebook pages and groups, and can confirm these findings. I held a snap poll asking: “Would you pay to read on line The Times, Sunday Times, News of the World or Sun?”

Not a single one of them answered “yes”. Not one.

In a debate forum, they made many points against paying for any online content. Time and again they pointed to the fact that there are many online outlets where they can get their information, with the BBC, in particular, and other newspaper sites getting mentioned.

The Murdoch organisation is already gunning for the BBC. Roop would have kicked in the screen if he had seen Ray Snoddy’s Newswatch at the weekend. If you missed it, Rupert, it’s here, ad-free and free to access provided you are in the UK, from about 5min 50sec in…

Web users from overseas had written in complaining of banner advertising on the BBC sites. They turned it around into a plug for the future of their online presence. Pete Clifton, the Beeb head of online media, told Snoddy: “I can give a gold-plated assurance that we will never ever charge for our website service.”

But while the BBC remains unable to charge for advertising in the UK, it can, and does, carry some ads on its web pages served outside the British Isles, “with any profits pushed back into improving our journalism”, according to Clifton.

Of course, it is not for the BBC to give “gold plated” guarantees about policy on advertising, but for the Government, and there is no guarantee at all that, with Jeremy Hunt installed at the Department of Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, that previous policy over funding the Beeb will remain unchanged.

Our new coalition government has a few other things on its plate at the moment, but in oppostion Hunt suggested that he would look into the BBC’s octopus-like tentacles on the internet. He may also ask how many of the people who pay their licence tax (for that is what it is) want a percentage of it spent on the upkeep of a website?

I am sure Roop has had a word in PM David Cameron’s shell-like. He can call in his marker for that heavy News International support in the General Election.

Some experts on new media predict The Times/Sunday Times paywall could bring benefits in terms of more stable advertising revenue and improved content, and their audience will be clearly defined. But just how much will advertisers be willing to pour into their campaigns for the attention of a swiftly shrinking audience?

YOU CAN’T MOVE for questionnaires hitting you at every turn. This week we learned through a survey by the excellent Press Gazette that websites are the most popular source of sports news, ahead of national newspapers, radio and TV.

Almost a quarter (247 people) of the 1,000 British adults quizzed said they favoured the web as their preferred source of sporting news and comment.

Just 14 per cent of those surveyed identified national newspapers as their primary source of sports news, while 2.4 per cent of respondents suggested local papers were their primary destination.

Despite the popularity of the web as a provider of sports information, BBC television was singled out as the public’s favourite publication, website or broadcast outlet for sports news. Are you listening, Roop?

A quarter of respondents (25.9 per cent) selected BBC television as their favoured info point, with 15.3 per cent selecting BBC Online as their preferred source. Sky Sports was the public’s third favourite source (11.4 per cent) with Sky News in a distant fourth place (4.1 per cent).

Just three newspapers made it into the public’s top 10 favoured sources. The Daily Mail was ranked sixth, The Sun was eighth and the Daily Telegraph 10th.

Collectively these three newspaper publications pooled just 6.7 per cent of the preferred source vote.

And the next time your News Editor derides the importance of the sports desk, you might want to point out that sport was also found to be a major contributory factor for people deciding which publication, website or broadcast outlet to access, as 45.8 per cent of respondents claiming sport was an “important factor” in the decision.

I wonder if the splendid sports service provided by The Times can help make the paywall the success many in journalism want it to be?

It seems a pity Murdoch and his son James could not have delayed the launch a few weeks for next month’s anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. With D-Day here, however, it does mean the Sunday Times gets a very suitable date, July 4, for underlining its own online independence from its disliked sibling. They may be “sister titles”, but ” as anybody in the know at Wapping will tell you ” The Times and Sunday Times are no fonder of each other than Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Whatever will happen to the new Wapping Walls?

NI formally announced its paywall less than hour after this was posted. Read The Guardian‘s news report here

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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