The big reveal comes next week. We’ll have a better idea then whether the redesigned Times website and new Sunday Times online offering will be worth signing up for at £2 per week, or £1 for a single day’s access. One thing is certain. No matter how luxurious this new digital experience turns out to be, a large portion of The Times’ monthly traffic of around 20 million unique users will evaporate when, some time next month, News International ends its initial trial period and starts charging.
Among those departing users will be Jeannine Steward who, as I reported in March, responded to news of the impending paywall by posting “Adios” on the Times website, adding, “Give me a call when you’re free again.” But then Ms Steward lives in Norwalk, in Fairfield County, Connecticut. I know this because she emailed me to say thanks for “my 15 minutes of fame”. With respect to Norwalk, it probably does not feature highly in the strategies of British media buyers – the people who buy advertising space on behalf of their clients. This is the crux of the paywall debate.
“What has become clear is that the traditional model based on millions of eyeballs is not working,” says Tristan Davies, who has been developing the new Sunday Times website. “Users who maybe like Jeremy Clarkson might come into the site but then disappear. They may not even like the paper. So the business end of the company decided it was better to have a quality relationship with an audience than one based on quantity.”
Though Rupert Murdoch’s plans to charge for online journalism have seen him ridiculed as failing to understand internet culture, the once prevailing online credo that “information demands to be free” is no longer so powerful. The Financial Times website was one of the first to charge but, the argument went, people were willing to make an exception for insight that gave them an advantage in business, especially if they were spending the company’s money when paying for a subscription. Rob Grimshaw, managing director of FT.com, discerns a change in attitude across the industry. “There has been a shift, but I don’t think it is in the consumer’s willingness to pay – that was always there, it’s just perhaps that publishers didn’t want to see it,” he says. “We’ve seen for years these surveys trotted out that 80 per cent of people would never pay for content online and therefore the whole enterprise is doomed. Publishers looked at those things and saw in them what they wanted.”
Will it work? Will people buy into it? Would you pay-per-view or will you simply buy a copy of the paper? Do you prefer the printed press to the online versions?