Paywall ping-pong

Went last night to the recording of BBC Radio 4’s Media Show paywall debate last night between John Witherow of the bbcmediashowSunday Times and Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian. To the evident disappointment of the show’s presenter Steve Hewlett, neither man took up the invitation to set the dialogue alight or to savage the other.

The explanation for this outbreak of reasonableness is not far to seek. Neither editor wants to hook themselves on positions they can’t change if events go against them. Witherow, fronting for the decision to split the sites of the The Times and Sunday Times and to charge £1 per day or £2 per week for visiting either, can’t be sure that the experiment will work and can’t rule out the possibility of having to reverse out of it. Rusbridger, sceptical about charging, can’t be certain that economics may not force him to ask his users to pay in the future, however much he dislikes the idea. “You’d have to be crazy to be fundamentalist about this,” as he put it. Hence the careful, pacific tone of the exchanges.

Highlights and soundbites. Witherow acknowledged that the two papers would lose “at least” 90% of their existing traffic. He thinks that the iPad is a gamechanger and sees people switching to it en masse. He was not drawn on why the paywall is going round 100% of the paper’s content or whether and how the low starting price might be raised, two of the most striking aspects of News International’s experiment. He did not have a very convincing answer to what he would do if faced with what might be called the “Pundits Revolt” which forced the New York Times to back out of an earlier charging experiment. The paper’s columnists, cut off from their friends, enemies and opinions of all kinds behind the paywall rebelled.

Rusbridger was at pains to stress that he was not an implacable opponent of charging: “I’m not making an ideological case,” he said more than once. He said that The Guardian was making £40m a year in digital revenue and that figure had increased by 100% a year. He is ready to consider the possibility of the printed Guardian vanishing. That “may be where all this is leading”, he said. Asked what he would expect to see in ten years’ time, his list included a “South American edition” of The Guardian in Spanish.

I was left with the plain impression that these fixed for-and-against positions are bound to be altered or dissolved by innovation and technology. Many more people than the managers of two London papers are thinking about how to charge because they have to in order to survive. At the moment, the choice is stark black and white. You can have connectedness or you can have income; but you can’t have both and must choose.

This is exactly the kind of issue which the Google people are wrestling with (see here) and they have been offering their thinking to papers like the New York Times and Washington Post. The NYT is clearly trying to figure out a way round the central dilemma with a “metering” scheme and the connectedness of coumnists and bloggers is a pivotal point at issue. If the importance of breaking down this stark choice doesn’t produce some better third ways soon, I’ll be surprised.

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