Went last night to the recording of BBC Radio 4′s Media Show paywall debate last night between John Witherow of the Sunday 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.
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