The Times: the paywall puzzle

The Times reaches 100,000 digital subscribers and I’m still baffled by their online strategy. I ought to be better-placed than many to figure out what they’re up to (declaration: I used to work there). But it’s not easy.

This blog starts from the position that anything which promises a sustainable economic base for journalism is to be encouraged. Dogmatic assertions (“content wants to be free”, “content wants to be expensive”) which aim to shout down empirical experiments are to be discouraged. So any publisher adding to the sum of knowledge about what will or won’t work in charging is contributing. From that perspective, the Times announcement tells us a few things.

  • If your paywall is radical (i.e. around every item of content) and your title is general interest, acquiring subscribers is hard, slow work. Despite improving results with iPad downloads, the overall subscriber acquisition rate is slowing a bit. But a hundred thousand paying followers is not be sniffed at and the experiment is not failing. Even the Guardian’s media editor (not generally favourable to online charging) is prepared to concede that much.
  • Given the prospect of a long haul, why not experiment with relaxing the paywall and playing with a few ideas for tempting more subscribers with some free content? What little information we have is now tending to suggest that the hybrid models are working best, both in attracting new payers in and in minimising the feeling among writers that they’re walled off from the people with whom they’d like to interact. The New York Times is the most important of these experiments, but see also the shift made by the movie industry’s Variety, detailed in one of the comments here by Gordon MacMillan of The Wall blog.
  • Iphone and iPad apps are crucial, however poor Apple’s terms of business. They’ve just relaunched the iPhone app with a limited-period free offer (sending it to the top of the app chart as I write) and the iPad application is good-looking and easy to use. Unscientific survey of one: my wife, given an iPad for her birthday, converted from being a longstanding print reader to reading The Times on the tablet in the space of a day. There is no longer any competition in our household for the printed copy.
  • The digital subscription income can’t be offsetting losses caused by the fall in print sales. But subscription income wasn’t ever the heart of the matter. Digital subscriptions are part of a wider strategy to create a sufficiently large body of readers who, one way or another, buy more from the The Times (and Sunday Times) than they ever used to even if they were regular buyers of the printed paper. In the jargon this game is known as “average revenue per user” (or the unlovely ARPU). And the even longer game is having enough data about your users and their preferences to sell to advertisers who want to reach very selectively-targeted audiences. A hundred thousand subscribers is a step on that road, but by no means the whole distance.

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  1. George, I agree there could be some experimentation with the amount of content that is available outside the paywall. Indeed, the Times team have quietly been doing this – allowing the front page of site to be viewed and posting oddities and small items to the Times Facebook group (which has now interestingly stopped.

    But with the full BSkyB takeover about to take place, NI will be thinking: if Sky can reach 10 million paying households within its deadline – for expensive and, frankly, non-essential satellite TV – then why can’t the Times. I used to argue with Sky execs that they should make just their football or cricket available through TV or Sky Player on an American pay per view model.

    But why would they?

  2. Information may not necessarily want to be free but it does want to be shared. It is the proverbial water cooler. People want to be able to discuss the news, comment on it, and even add their particular view-point on it. Sharing like this should be encoraged because it fosters discussion that ultimately brings more people to the source of the content and creates a community around the material, much like small town newspapers once did.

    The last few years however, we have seen the news media make this process more difficult by erecting barriers and even going as far as suing sites that share even excerpts of the content by using companies like Righthaven. The sharing atmosphere that permeated the internet’s first decade is giving way to a circle the wagons mentality and it is not healthy for either the news content creators, their readers, or our democratic society.