The position of all of the UK’s major newspapers on the ‘news paywall’ issue is starting to become clear, with the Mail Online joining the Guardian/Observer on the ‘free’ news side of the fence as opposed to News International’s Times/Sunday Times which are to disappear behind paywalls in June.
The Mail Online’s Publisher Martin Clarke, nailed his colours to the mast last month dismissing the prospect of a paywall and declaring the Mail Online ‘big enough to make the advertising model pay’. This announcement comes after a year of strong growth for the newspaper site – it now has 65% more daily users than last year according to the latest ABCes – as it attempts to position itself as a major international rather than purely UK player.
The Guardian, which itself has enjoyed 40% year on year daily user growth, had already positioned itself firmly in the ‘free’ camp. Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s Editor, has strongly stated his belief that newspapers would be foolish to turn their backs on the world of free sharing of content and has recently locked horns with Rupert Murdoch on the subject
Neither of these papers has ruled out paid content, but both believe that readers will only be prepared to pay for ‘specialist’ content and versions of their publications optimised for mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad.
However, News International’s plans to charge for access to all content from the Times and Sunday Times continue apace. This month will see the launch of a new site for the former, and a standalone site for the latter with the promise of additional features such as daily live Q&As with the journalists. The charges have also been announced with daily access costing £1 and weekly access to both websites £2.
Recent studies have suggested that around 7% of online readers are prepared to pay for online content. If the Times can convince that proportion of its monthly online readers to pay for 17 daily subscriptions or 8 weekly subscriptions, then its online revenues will rival those of the Guardian, and that’s before advertising is taken into account. It doesn’t look impossible to achieve.
Moreover, if The Times and Sunday Times can leverage their relationships with these loyal readers to find out more about them, their demographics, preferences, interests and behaviours, both sites could remain an attractive proposition for advertisers, particularly premium and luxury advertisers who want to target their audiences more specifically and avoid waste.
However, the key to the success of the great paywall project will hinge on 3 factors – the ability of the Times/Sunday Times to provide superior quality content to both attract subscribers and stop them drifting away; the reaction of the other publications to the project if it’s successful (what might the Telegraph, the no.3 online publication, do if the paywall is a success?) - and the impact of the decreased online exposure of the brands on their offline circulations.
On the latter point, Martin Clarke said recently ‘Our website does not threaten our paper, it protects it’. Will paywalls have the desired effect of protecting print circulations or could the removal of Times content from the mass of internet users actually have the reverse effect – out of sight meaning out of mind and less people picking up the odd copy to and from work. It’s a cliché but in these uncharted territories its true – only time will reveal the answers.