The Times editor John Witherow on how its paywall is paying off – and why he thinks the Guardian will now follow its lead

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Six years ago, in a debate on BBC Radio 4, Alan Rusbridger, then editor-in-chief of the Guardian, faced off the then Sunday Times editor John Witherow and described the new digital paywall model established by the Times and the Sunday Times as a “vault of darkness” which might generate as few as 60,000 subscribers.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves that this is going to be the panacea,” sniffed Rusbridger, comparing the statistic to the 32 million browsers then accessing his paper’s site every month. Today, the Guardian site has grown to 155 million monthly browsers and more than 10 million a day. But its publisher, Guardian Media Group, yesterday declared the paper’s annual losses at £68.7m, compared to £14.7m the previous year. In total, the company lost an eye-watering £173m.

By contrast, the Times and Sunday Times last week reported record subscriber numbers – 413,600 across print and digital. This is the basis for a business that declared a pre-tax profit of £10.9m in its last financial results, having made annual losses of more than £70m prior to the installation of its paywall.

Free vs paywall

In his 11th floor office at News UK, Witherow, who became editor of the Times in 2013, immediately references the Rusbridger 60,000 prediction and notes that the Times and Sunday Times now has more than 182,000 digital-only subscribers “and we charge quite a lot of money”.

So confident is he that the argument for paid content has been made, that he suggests that the Guardian is “heading towards a paywall” of its own. “I think the Guardian could easily go behind the paywall. I think it has got a very devoted readership, [and] it’s the only left wing national newspaper of any seriousness.”

He sees the Guardian’s £49-a-year membership scheme (heralded by Guardian Media Group as a beacon of hope, with 50,000 readers registered) as merely a stepping stone to a subscription model. “Appealing for donations of £49 is not the answer, because it's not enough. You need a million people donating £49 to pay for the journalism at the Guardian which is very good but it's expensive,” he says. “They have to really rethink their model.”

Just as Rusbridger once compared numbers, Witherow notes that his readers are paying around £350-a-year for their subs. “If [The Guardian] want to ask people to donate that's fine but they are going to have to donate more and it just seems to me that it's a gradual process that they are heading towards a paywall, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's always been my view that digital would end up like newspapers, a combination of advertising and paid-for content.”

Charging for content has created a “harmonious circle” at the Times titles, by generating funds to “invest in journalism”, he claims. “We are trying to hire the best possible journalists we can because people will only pay those sort of amounts for top quality journalism.”

Certainly there is a confidence to the Times that is hard to find elsewhere on old Fleet Street. Its print circulation – aided by its comparatively cheap £1.40 cover price – has risen for nine consecutive months year-on-year and stands at 449,151.

Witherow says that being part of a profitable organisation is a major part of improved morale. “One of the first things I wanted to do when I came into the Times was to try and get the paper into profit to secure its future, because no newspaper can endlessly take resources from the parent company.” Profitability has come from driving down costs as well as increasing sales. Changing the layout of the paper saved “millions” in printing and editorial costs.

Even so, he maintains that there is “no hubris” at The Times. “We are perfectly conscious of how difficult things are and what we have established so far is not there forever necessarily. We are constantly looking for other areas we can expand into if print advertising doesn't come back.”

Expanding the Times brand

He plans to expand outside England and Wales. The Times launched an Irish edition for the first time in its 228-year history and is on a circulation drive in Scotland. “We have overtaken the Scotsman and have the Herald in our sights,” he says.

Further afield, there is potential for marketing the “Times of London” brand outside of the British Isles, he believes. “The next big thing we are going to look at is the international expansion, where we can actually use as a positive ‘The Times of London’, saying ‘Do you want to know what's happening in London, one of the big financial centres?’ I think that will expand our circulation digitally, internationally.”

But not in the way that the Guardian has sought to grow its reach with bespoke US and Australian operations. “It’s…if you want a London view of the world, come to us; we are not going to compete in Australia and America because that does burn cash.”

Witherow admits that “the Thunderer”, as the Times was once known, has lost some of its global profile by hiding behind a paywall – “there's some truth in that”.

But he believes that although “one or two” news outlets will remain suited to a free model, charging for content “ultimately makes sense for all newspapers” because “news is a valuable commodity and people will respect it more if they have to pay for it”.

It was once argued that only news outlets with a business audience could persuade readers (or the employers of their readers) to pay for online content. But Witherow says that the fevered contemporary news climate contributes to a willingness to pay for high-quality reporting and analysis of general news. “What is happening (in world news) is both terrible and good for journalism in the sense that there's a huge thirst out there for explanation.”

From this week, the Times and Sunday Times will introduce a new dimension to its business model, allowing users to register for two free articles each week. Outsiders who regard this as a weakening of the commitment to a hard paywall (given that sister paper the Sun last year scrapped its paywall and reverted to a free model) are wide of the mark; it’s a sampling tactic for drawing in more subscribers.

Catherine Newman, marketing and sales director for the Times and the Sunday Times, says that after the redesign of the website and smartphone app in March, “we are dressed to impress” in showcasing the offering to new potential subscribers.

Rowing back from breaking news

The Times’ editorial strategy, heavily informed by the stated wishes of its readers in surveys, is to abandon attempts to compete in the crowded market for breaking news and fall back on more considered reporting, analysis and opinion pieces. “People feel buried in rolling news, there’s lots of free stuff out there,” says Newman. “Actually what they want is for someone to help them to get to what matters, to cut through everything else that’s going on.”

The paper’s readers said they tended to look to the BBC and Twitter for breaking news coverage, and Alan Hunter, head of digital for the Times and the Sunday Times, admits that the Times cannot compete. “We know we are never going to have the resources of the BBC, and Twitter has 350 million correspondents around the world.”

The Times’ digital offerings are based on three daily updates, at 9am, noon and 5pm, creating appointments to view for the audience. Hunter says the approach has resulted in a 20 per cent increase in average weekday visits to the website per user. On the new smartphone app, which he describes as “the main opportunity”, page views are up by 25 per cent on the previous app.

Particularly popular is the 5pm update, aimed especially at smartphone users on the homeward commute. It’s an alternative to the London Evening Standard and other regional titles. “That’s a great opportunity because we go to digital press at 4.59pm, [and] evening papers have to go to press a lot earlier because there’s the whole distribution involved,” says Hunter.

While many open news websites struggle to moderate abuse in their comments sections, the Times has relatively few such problems. “Readers can use screen names but they know that they have given their details to us – that’s a real incentive to act in a reasonable way,” says Hunter. This helps in building relationships between the paper’s staff and the readers, which can be further developed at live events aimed at members of the Times+ subscription loyalty scheme.

Newman says that a Brexit debate, taking place next month and hosted by the Times’ Red Box political brand, could have been “sold out 30 times over”.

While its stablemates, the Sun and Sunday Times, backed the Leave campaign, the Times chose to support Remain – but only after a long period of covering both sides of the argument to a degree that left commentators guessing on the paper’s allegiance.

The determination not to pursue an agenda – unlike some other papers – fits with the business strategy. Witherow, editor of the Sunday Times for 19 years and of the Times for three, might not have backed the winning horse but he takes a long-term view. “The paper benefited from that approach because other papers quite early on took a particular line and pursued it editorially and I think our readers just wanted to hear the arguments,” he says. “This story is going to dominate our lives for years. Journalistically that's exciting, the challenge is to explain it to people as best we can and to make it interesting, because some of it is going to get very nitty gritty.”

However many people turn to the Times for that coverage, it’s now clear that the paper will not be publishing from a vault of darkness.

The News Business column is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian Burrell on Twitter @iburrell

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