Jun 10

Newspaper executives should look away now

Hard on the heels of the news that online advertising revenue will soon be the largest category of ad income in the UK, comes this polling result on the sites people go to for their online news. As The Guardian reported it:

“Newspaper executives should look away now. For the 83% that said they had accessed news online in the past month, websites of the national newspapers didn’t even make the top five. The top five visited news websites for these users were, in order: BBC News (34%), Google News (17%), Sky News (6%), Yahoo! (5%), and MSN (5%).” (Full version of the story, revealing a strong preference for print, here).

What’s the common denominator among those five sites? They’re either aggregators or broadcasters. So they have immediacy and range (or breadth).

Much of the logic behind newspapers putting paywalls round part or all of their content makes sense. But one of the flaws in the argument is they can’t quite compete on either. However excellent the journalism in the Financial Times, the Times or the Sunday Times can they be seen as valuable enough to pay for – when these results seem to give a clear guide what people actually opt for when wielding a mouse?

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Jun 10

Rupert’s hymn to Steve Jobs

The low subscription price being asked as of next month for The Times and Sunday Times sets some hard tasks for the papers’ owners in the future: raising the price involves raising the value seen by the subscriber. Or so I thought. Rupert Murdoch sees the working of a paywall quite differently. Cutting people off when they don’t pay may work for cable or satellite TV, but I’m less sure that it’ll work that way for newspaper sites. But what do I know?

One of the weird things about Murdoch’s reputation is that what he actually says – on the relatively rare occasions he’s interviewed – gets little attention. So the interview detail is worth the six minutes. Highlights: the Wall Street Journal should really be called “the Main Street Journal” (a soundbite which bears all the hallmarks of the WSJ’s editor Robert Thomson), publishers should charge for “electronic distribution” (rather than for content, note), namechecks for the Wired and Scientific American sites and gushing, BP-oil-leak-style praise for Steve Jobs.

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.

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May 10

Times teething

Missed both the bloggers’ sneak preview and the party to launch the new Times and Sunday Times websites but I would have liked to test drive them today.

I managed to get a glimpse of the new Times look and to read an arts review but every time I went back to the front page, I kept getting asked for my email and password on a popdown. After this had happened four times, I gave up. By next week no doubt these wrinkles will have been ironed out and there will be a live edition of the Sunday Times to look at. I will report back then.

Whatever else may be said, The Times site looks very good: classy, poised and clear. Credit for that goes to the Head of Design Jon Hill (his comment on this post namechecks his team).

May 10

Life expectancy of newspapers: and the answer is…

On a recent radio debate, Sunday Times editor John Witherow and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger both said that the latest printing press purchases by their companies were likely to be their last – thus putting a rough outer limit on the number of years they think their titles will be in print. Thirty years and twenty respectively.

A senior honcho at Pearson, owners of the FT, shortened this to (maybe) five years at a seminar this week. Er, not quite, said a different suit at the FT, rowing back some way. Rob Andrews of PaidContent has very helpfully rounded up here this new readiness to schedule the death of print in more detail then ever before.

Or, as Jeff Jarvis tweeted today: “They said I was nuts when I saw an end to print. I’m getting more company in the asylum.”

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).

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