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To pay or not to pay? The question of the online paywall


By Noel Young, Correspondent

June 22, 2012 | 7 min read

Noel Young, chairman of the Online Media Awards judging panel, looks at the future of free news, asking whether readers should pay for online journalism.

How’s this for a vision of the future: hordes of 30-somethings getting all their news from TV and broadcasts, printing off the odd page from Facebook to get that tactile feeling referred to by Rupert Murdoch. Newspapers? Gonzo. Partly because they couldn’t all get their act together to start charging.It all seems slightly ridiculous this week in the dazzle of the Emirates stadium with Britain’s best and brightest online citizens lining up to collect their well-deserved trophies. British (free) newspaper websites reaching out to more than 200 million readers across the globe; great professional online magazines; great journalism showing that, online, the UK is up with the best.Yet the question of whether consumers should pay for online journalism is definitely in the air among the attendees at the Online Media Awards in London. Hundreds of thousands of journalists (some rather well paid) labour daily, providing copy which millions consume for free on websites. Shouldn’t the readers pay for this service, as they do for the printed paper? Distinguished US editor Matt Storin, formerly editor of the Boston Globe and Chicago Sun-Times and one of our judges, put it to me that they should.“It is a life or death decision but I’m glad I don’t have to make it. Every paper will depend on digital to make its money. I favour a payment system. It is the only future.” Not everyone is in the same canoe as Storin. Many papers are still paddling furiously in a different direction – with free websites. But the Los Angeles Times is now going down the paywall road, as are a number of Gannett papers (including the Herald in Glasgow). In the UK, the Times and Sunday Times are beginning to see the benefits of their “paywall” (don’t you hate that word) beefing up their print sales figure.At US sister the Wall Street Journal, the paywall is scarcely mentioned any more – the WSJ was first to impose a paywall, in the 1990s, and Murdoch thought briefly about scrapping it before changing his mind. On the surface, two of the main stars at the Emirates Stadium disagree with Storin, with the Mail Online and the Guardian both producing startlingly successful free websites.The Guardian has a digital-first strategy putting the website at the heart of everything it does. “In a difficult economic climate, we had to ensure that we made the most of the resources we had,” is how they put it. The reader figures speak for themselves. Monthly unique browsers (not audited): 71,266,461 for April 2012 (source: Omniture), a third of which were from the US. Yet editor Alan Rusbridger has not completely ruled out a paywall. In an interview at Harvard for the Nieman Journalism lab (he was there to accept an Award for Excellence in Journalism) he said he didn’t see it “in the near future”. A wall separating Guardian content from the readers “would be a wrong turning for us”. But he said The New York Times model – allowing so many free articles, links through social media and a free access just for buying the Sunday paper – was more interesting because it was so “porous”.“So if you believe what I believe about being open, a paywall that succeeds in getting revenue as well as being open is a more interesting model, obviously.” Rusbridger said the Guardian “charged for mobile, we charge for iPads. It’s not that we’re against payment altogether. But at the moment, when we’ve crunched the numbers, we don’t think that the revenues we would get from a paywall would justify making that the main focus of our efforts right now. I’m not a sort of anti-paywall fundamentalist — it just doesn’t seem the most interesting thing to be doing at the moment.” It seems some readers are prepared for it. On the Guardian website last week one reader praised the site to the skies then added: “I dread the day when we are required to pay for it, though I know that day will surely come. Please, please go for a small fee.”Then there is the Mail Online which, under Martin Clarke, has become the world’s biggest newspaper website with 90,309,252 monthly unique browsers in April. This is up 41.65 per cent on the previous year. With a diet distinct from the parent paper, a host of human stories and long ‘read-me’ headlines, the Mail, fuelled by a team of journalists in New York and Los Angeles as well as London, has become a great hit with American audiences in particular. It also boasts exceptional picture coverage.Clarke has said of beating the New York Times to become the world’s biggest newspaper website: “We just do news that people want to read.”Matt Storin sums up Mail Online: “They have good people running it; they’re good at driving eyeballs. Sex sells and they sell it.”The Mail Online is the flag carrier for the online newspaper business. It is free, but Clarke seemed to leave that door open when he told the Leveson Inquiry: “Only news organisations which make an honest profit can be truly free. To ensure its continued independence and ability to produce high quality journalism, the Mail must make money from digital journalism.”Online advertising yields are much lower than in print, he said... so what else is there?The Telegraph is another well-produced biggie (love the Matt cartoon) with 46 million unique monthly browsers. There is no word of it going paid-for.The paid-for online papers produced by News International do not have these huge figures – but they do have one very intriguing figure in their most recent results: “The ABC figures for The Times are 393,187 and 955,248 for The Sunday Times,” said the company. “Combined with 130,751 digital subscribers, there is a total paid audience of 523,938 for The Times. The Sunday Times has 126,989 digital subscribers and a total paid audience of 1,082,237.”And here’s the kicker: The 129,989 digital buyers keep the Sunday Times figure comfortably over a million. It does seem logical to me: both the digital and print customers are buying the paper.The ABC in Britain doesn’t print the figures in this way yet but they surely will. They’re doing it in the US – both the Boston Globe, Storin’s old paper, and the New York Times recorded their first sales increase in eight years last month – when their digital figures were counted in. For the Boston Globe, the rise was around 18,000 buyers – not a huge amount but enough to record that ‘first uptick for eight years’ headline.Storin says if paywalls are to succeed, “the whole industry has to go into it. Over time that may create more prosperity for everybody.”Newspapers online are vastly cheaper to produce than their over-the-counter cousins. Why don’t proprietors devise a way of giving some of that cash back to their online customers (while not turning off their print readers!). Difficult I know, but it can be done.I haven’t mentioned the BBC here. It has a humongous world audience (156 million unique monthly browsers is a reliable estimate) and is of course free. But why should it be? I would have thought a corporation with the fearsome financial pressures it faces would welcome revenue from paid circulation. But not yet, it would seem I started this article with the preconceived notion that free newspaper websites were here to stay. I have to say I now share the views of Matt Storin. It’s your money or your life, folks. Unless you have a better idea. Newspapers/laptop image via Shutterstock
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