Jun 10

A Times blogger waves as he goes behind the paywall

Discussing the departure of Times blogger BabyBarista the other day, I cited the example of one of the paper’s more successful bloggers, Charles Bremner in Paris. Bremner has just written this very careful post reminding his followers that very soon they will have to pay to follow him.

If you want to get a sense of how a paywall actually affect the commentators who may well determine the experiment’s result, this piece is worth a dozen items of abstract argument on the issue. Bremner must of course follow his paper’s policy, but I don’t think it’s fanciful to detect some anxiety in his tone. He’s bidding farewell for sure to some of his readers; he just doesn’t know how many.

Look at the comments and you will see an exchange about whether a micropayments system which would allow readers to opt to pay for some writers and not for others might be better than a one-size-fits-all paywall. Not surprisingly, Bremner – whose blog would likely flourish with micropayments – is in favour. I’m not sure that the system might not just be too complicated for anyone to bother with it; but let’s hope that someone tries it out soon. For the moment, the mixed comments on Bremner’s post are some of the first evidence we have on how people actually react to a paywall going up between them and regular reading they’ve been doing for free.


Jun 10

BabyBarista slips through the paywall

The upcoming paywall at The Times has claimed its first victim as one of its legal bloggers, BabyBarista, departed the paper to set up independently in order not to be cut off from the network of links, contacts and readers which the blog has created. Having waved a fond goodbye, barrister Tim Kevan then pronounced that the paywall will be a “disaster”. That post also contains links to those who agree with him and that list happens to make a very good guided tour of the opinions on one side of the argument.

Note two things. First the glee with which this breach in the wall is being greeted by those who have declared, in advance of the results coming in, that the experiment with paywalls will fail. This is premature in more than one way.

The judgement about The Times wall can’t be made for months. We need to know about revenue, subscriber churn, the kinds of usage the site is getting and whether ads are being sold on the new sites – to name only a few of things we probably won’t get told about. And paywall experiments will differ: if the one at The Times fails, that doesn’t mean that others (e.g. the upcoming one at the New York Times) will crash. Lastly, one defecting blogger doesn’t unravel a whole newspaper.

Second and more important, see how the ground of debate is shifting away from economics towards links. Paywall experiments are about making money from content. But the biggest difficulties they face haven’t been financial; they’ve been creative. Writers like being linked. They want reactions, tips, comments and, above all, recognition. Anything which shrinks those possibilities goes against the grain and against their interests.

Continue reading →


Mar 10

Times paywall thinking

A few early observations on yesterday’s announcement by The Times that they will charge for online access as of June. (Disclosure: I worked for The Times until 2009).

1. While this is an experiment – and to be welcomed as that – it is not likely to have been done without plenty of market surveys. News International, The Times parent company in London, is an outfit with a heavy research habit. By definition, this kind of consumer behaviour isn’t easy to predict but it’s not as if they will just have wandered into it blind. The Editor of The Times James Harding may be fronting and the site is getting a revamp, but this is a business strategy decision, not primarily an editorial one.

2. The price point is incredibly low. Most research suggests a conversion rate between 5% (reckoned pretty good) and 10% (stratospheric). Nowhere in this range do they make much money at this retail price. We have to assume that they hope to crank the price up as time goes on. But the pivot of that strategy has to be achieving steady increases in the perceived value of the product. As I’ve argued, most newspapers don’t fully realise how far that perception of value has dropped over a long period.

3. The themes of any raise-the-value strategy are likely to be engagement, premium, loyalty. Every newspaper website has been cutting and re-cutting its online visitor figures to try to work out who among them can count as loyal, regular readers. Who comes once a month? Who comes once a week? Expect these people, the core of the people who may now pay, to be offered perks, extras and goodies. The God being worshipped here, the dominant imperative, is ARPU (Average Revenue Per User).

Continue reading →