The latest ABCEs for October have just been released, revealing that the Guardian.co.uk has held on to its no.1 spot for the 2nd straight month with 31.7m unique users in October, with the Mail online remaining in 2nd place with 30.4m users despite the Jan Moir/Stephen Gately controversy. The Telegraph came in 3rd place with 30m whilst the Times, with 20.87m users, and the Independent, with 9.7m users, lagged well behind – although both showed rapid month-on-month growth of 13% and 10% respectively.
The survey comes at a time when the whole notion of advertising-funded ‘free access’ online news models are the subject of intense debate.
Newspapers are suffering under the twin pressures of declining offline circulation and declining ad revenues, both online and offline. Despite online advertising gaining in popularity amongst advertisers, and the predictions that this trend will continue in 2010, News Corporation have taken the view that growth in revenue from this source is not enough to justify the continuation of the ‘free access’ model. As such, they’ve announced that the content of times.co.uk will be accessible only to subscribers from the Spring of next year.
Paid for access to content is nothing new – both the FT and WSJ operate such models – but News Corp’s times.co.uk looks like it will be the first online ‘mass’ national newspaper to erect a ‘paywall’ around all its news content. According to James Harding, the editor, users will have the choice of a subscription or 24 hour access priced at approximately the cover price of the offline version (90p).
This announcement of details of the plans was closely followed by the declaration of a deal between News Corp, Time Inc., Hearst, Conde Nast and Meredith to launch a portal to promote their combined content for ‘paid for’ download to serve the burgeoning market in ereaders and the market soon to be created by the ‘rumoured’ new Apple Tablet.
At the same time, News Corp execs have been mounting a calculated assault on Google, claiming that by indexing their content and making it available to all, Google is threatening to undermine the future of quality journalism. Google, clearly keen not to be labelled as the bad guy in this debate, announced a pledge to limit users accessing ‘paid for content’ from Google searches to a maximum of 5 articles before the paywall comes down. They also countered, albeit obliquely, with the announcement of their ‘Living Stories’ project, suggesting perhaps if news providers had given some serious thought as to how to differentiate their content to best exploit the digital medium they might be garnering a larger slice of the online audience than they are.
It will be interesting to see if this bold move by the Times will succeed. As the latest ABCEs demonstrate, the Times has got the least to lose by such a move, trailing as it does a poor 4th behind the Guardian, the Mail and the Telegraph.
If the subscription revenues are higher than the existing online advertising revenues, it will be deemed to be a commercial success although the Times will inevitably become an increasingly niche publication. The question is ‘what sort of niche?’ and will that niche still prove attractive to advertisers, as that of the FT undoubtedly is, or will the title disappear from advertisers schedules altogether? Also, what sort of impact will this move have on the newspapers’ offline sales and circulation?
Other newspapers will be watching with interest but as yet there are no signals that they’ll be following the Times’ path. William Lewis, the Telegraph Group’s new MD of Digital, has hinted that the Telegraph will continue with its ‘freemium’ model, using news as the way to attract a mass audience for their premium games and services such as Fantasy Football. The Guardian will no doubt see this as an opportunity to grab a larger slice of the online advertising market in the UK as they continue to build the site into an international player to become the bedrock of multinational online campaigns as well as UK ones.
What is certain is that we’ll see more and more online publications assessing their strategies and adopting either subscription or freemium models. The era of access to free news online is not coming to a close, but the era of free universal choice of the source of that news certainly is.