Murdoch’s paywall plan puts Times on trial

By Steven Downes
So now we know: Rupert Murdoch will be testing the waters of paid-for online content by putting The Times and Sunday Times websites behind a paywall from June.

The announcement has been called “the most intriguing strategic move in the newspaper business since the arrival of the internet”.

The significance of such a move should not be underestimated by anyone in the media business, since the very viability of that business may depend on the outcome of this initiative. The significance of the timing should also not be overlooked by those of us who work in sport, since while the Murdoch newspapers’ websites will be free-to-air throughout the General Election campaign, the likes of Hugh McIlvanney, Simon Barnes and Oliver Kay will be firmly behind a paywall just in time for the kick-off of the football World Cup in South Africa.

There are legions of nay-sayers who reckon that web users, inured after a decade of accessing newspapers’ content online for free, will refuse to cough up the £1 a day, or £2 a week, fees proposed by News International. For that amount of money, you’d expect Rupe to print it all out and pop it through your door, wouldn’t you?

According to the excellent blog by The Times’s former media editor, Dan Sabbagh, even Wapping insiders expect to lose 90 per cent of their websites’ traffic once the final brick is cemented into the paywall.

Murdoch will have okayed the move when he was in London 10 days ago. Of course, all factors will have been considered, but Wapping watchers will be wondering whether there is added reason in the timing of the announcement, after yesterday’s major media news.

Alexander Lebedev, who has had people handing out free copies of the Evening Standard for months, yesterday bought The Independent (and that, too, all for a mere £1). How will the NI online paywall work if one of their national newspaper rivals becomes a freebie?

Last week, NI’s chief executive Rebekah Wade emailed staff outlining what was to come and stating “the industry is making the mistake of chasing millions of unique users by giving the audience more and more content for free”.

Making our journalism pay has only become an issue for the management at newspaper groups since the bottom fell out of the advertising markets around two years ago. Up to that point, newspaper websites were a handy new way of generating ever-increasing amounts of income (and they may yet continue to be increasingly lucrative compared to newspaper ad revenues).

But take away that revenue stream, and what you are left with is a business model where every national newspaper is giving away its core product, fatally undermining its newspaper sales while generating no significant income.

James Harding, The Times editor, admitted there is a risk in the paywall strategy when interviewed by the BBC this morning (I found the quote on the BBC’s free-to-access website that is paid for by our television licence fee; don’t expect the Murdoch-owned newspapers to ease up on their attacks on that anomaly any time soon).

“But,” said Harding, “it’s less of a risk than just throwing away our journalism and giving it away for free.”

So something must be done.

And yet, it appears even Rupe retains some doubt about what is the right direction to go. Why else is he not activating a paywall for The Sun and News of the World at the same time? What happened to the line of thinking of keeping news and sport free-to-access to tempt in readers, while having “premium content” – The Times crossword, Page 3 – subject to subscription?

So is it fair to surmise that these proposals are a trial?

The Sunday Times, after years of Jon Witherow grudgingly allowing his weekly paper’s content to appear on the pooled website (“Jon doesn’t want us working all week to produce a story that appears on the website on a Wednesday,” I was told by more than one ST exec), will get its own online presence.

We will get nearly a month to see how the Sunday Times differentiates its online content, as the websites are re-launched in May.

The websites formally opened their registration process today, ahead of offering a range of additional services including an e-paper (yawn… timesonline have been peddling that product, in one form or another, for at least five years, without notable success) and other new applications. Access to the digital services will be included in the seven-day subscriptions of The Times and Sunday Times’s print subscribers.

“This is just the start,” Wade said today, without offering any explanation for the absence from the scheme of the websites of the country’s biggest-selling daily and Sunday newspapers.

“These new sites, and the apps that will enhance the experience, reflect the identity of our titles and deliver a terrific experience for readers. We expect to attract a growing base of loyal customers that are committed and engaged with our titles.”

At the heart of the scheme to keep existing readers and encourage new ones will be new, uniquely web-exclusive features. That will be long overdue.

When I started working at timesonline eight years ago, the website was little more than a depository for its already published newspaper content, and was snootily regarded by many of the newspaper staff as an annoying distraction or drain on their resources (in two rounds of redundancies and cuts, the internet staff remained untouched). Maybe they did not like the view that some of the web staff took when we were allowed to provide live, breaking news: “Tomorrow’s news today”, we’d say.

It is the height of irony that the Sunday Times’s then business editor managed not to turn up more than once for meetings he had called with timesonline’s editor, and that the same Will Lewis is now regarded as a digital vanguard at the Telegraph group.

For it has taken too long for some newspaper executives to realise that their websites are effectively a new title, capable of delivering new readers and advertising income, but also in need of budgets and staffing worthy of any newspaper. The Guardian was up to speed with the concept, offering podcasts and unique features long ago, and the Telegraph, now a webcaster as well as a newspaper publisher, is trying to catch up.

The digital paywall is a Rubicon being crossed with Murdoch, for once, leading the way. His papers’ move to Wapping a quarter of a century ago was presaged by Eddy Shah and Today; the “compact” broadsheet was trialled successfully by The Independent before it was introduced at The Times.

In the past, Murdoch has not moved unless he knows it will work. So charging for access to the web content of the loss-making Times may well be just NI’s way of putting a toe in the water without jeopardising the online properties at The Sun and News of the World. If so, then what might that say about the future of The Times?

15.00 UPDATE: Read Times editor James Harding’s online Q&A by clicking here, including the response that he will “hide under this desk” if the business makes losses and if other newspaper groups do not follow suit in the coming year.

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