HOME
          
LATEST STORY
How The Forward, 118 years old, is remaking itself as the American Jewish community changes
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
May 27, 2010, noon

A defensive experiment: How the Times of London and the Times in New York diverge on paid content

When Rupert Murdoch arrived at The Wall Street Journal, the word on the executive floor was that WSJ.com would soon become an entirely free site. After Murdoch was given a look at the numbers by the business side, the subscriptions remained.

Remembering that, I figured Murdoch’s talk of a draconian, all-or-nothing paywalls for The Times of London and The Sunday Times was saber-rattling aimed at the likes of Google, Microsoft and his own competitors. This would be the Journal experience in reverse, I assumed: News Corp. would talk up an absolutist paywall locking its content away from casual visitors and automated spiders alike, but then look at its own property’s success with a relatively porous, search- and link-friendly paywall and implement a more-nuanced approach.

But I was wrong. (And Alan Rusbridger, you were right.) As Tim Bradshaw writes for the Financial Times’ techblog, when the paywalls go up on the Times and the Sunday Times in a few weeks, all but the homepages will become invisible unless you pay £1 a day or £2 a week. There won’t be a meter like the FT’s or the one The New York Times plans to implement next year. You’ll be in or out. (And News International’s Paul Hayes has a pungent prediction about his own fate if too many people choose “out.”)

Sneak peek in Wapping

Bradshaw was part of a group of journalists and bloggers News International invited to a sneak peek (as was the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones), and he writes that “some members of the Times team seemed as keen to know what we thought of the plans as we were to see them.” And indeed, some of the comments made to Bradshaw read as simultaneously hopeful and a tad defensive. Assistant editor Tom Whitwell praised his publication’s spare, print-like look (which I agree is elegant and quite readable) and said that the Times would throw fewer stories at people than most sites, which he portrayed as a better alternative than “Google News showing you 4,000 versions of the same thing.” (Apples to oranges, as Google News is for searching, not browsing the news.)

Comment editor Danny Finkelstein, for his part, seemed unconcerned by the possibility that his articles will no longer be part of the online conversation, retorting that news organizations without a paywall “won’t go viral, they will go out of business” and adding that “we are trying to make people pay for the journalism…I want my employer to be paid for the intellectual property they are paying me for.” When a Twitter correspondent called the redesign very nice but said he wouldn’t be paying for it, Finkelstein responded: “Sorry to hear that. Our alternative is???”

Well, a number of things — including alternatives that seem far more promising for attracting new readers, keeping news organizations and writers like Finkelstein from being sidelined, and that aren’t such big gambles on traffic and ad dollars. The Times could emulate the Journal’s own model, setting up a relatively porous paywall that has retained subscribers (and thereby boosted ad revenues) while allowing Journal content to be discovered and read through search and shared through email, blogs, and social media. Or the Times could opt for a metered model like that of the FT, in which readers can see a certain number of articles per month for free, after which they’re asked to subscribe. That model zeroes in on a news organization’s most-frequent visitors — who one would assume would be the most-loyal, engaged members of its audience — and asks them to pay. (Disclosure: Perhaps because of my WSJ.com DNA, I’ve long advocated or at least not opposed paywalls and meters, and I now consult for Journalism Online.)

Closed vs. open

Where the Times U.K.’s model is closed, the Times U.S.’s model seems as open as possible. All Things D’s Peter Kafka notes that the Times’ meter won’t count links from third-party sites such as blogs. (Well, as a Times spokeswoman notes in a comment, actually they will — but if you’re over the limit you can still read a story via an outside link. Which would seem to indicate they won’t.) As Kafka notes, it’s a bit confusing, but the aim is that bloggers won’t be deterred from linking to the Times and readers won’t be trained not to follow such links.

Can that system be gamed? Of course — just as people can bypass the Journal’s paywall by searching for headlines in Google. But worrying about gaming is looking at paid content from the absolutist point of view: Everybody pays and maybe we make some exceptions. The metered model starts from a very different place: Figure out who’s most likely to pay, try to convert them, and don’t worry about the people who won’t pay anyway.

Between iPad apps and the renewed interest in subscriptions, metered models, and paywalls, the next 12 months are going to see a lot of ferment and experimentation in paid content. That experimentation is a good thing for the news industry, and there’s no reason an absolutist paywall shouldn’t be one of those experiments. (Particularly since News Corp. can pay for it out of a sliver of “Avatar” royalties.) But there are experiments designed to explore possible successes, and experiments designed to confirm probable failures. The Times U.K.’s paywall seems likely to be one of the latter.

POSTED     May 27, 2010, noon
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
How The Forward, 118 years old, is remaking itself as the American Jewish community changes
The newspaper, first published in Yiddish, is facing all the familiar pressures of print, combined with a shifting base of potential readers.
Newsonomics: Are local newspapers the taxi cabs of the Uber age?
Local newspapers still act as if they’re monopolies — despite all the new players eating away at their audiences’ attention. Is there room to adapt?
The Dallas Morning News is building data (and sources) through its new Rolodex tool
The open-source tool lets reporters contribute contacts to a centralized newsroom collection of sources — but it can also be used to build larger reader-facing data products.
What to read next
2401
tweets
The Economist’s Tom Standage on digital strategy and the limits of a model based on advertising
“The Economist has taken the view that advertising is nice, and we’ll certainly take money where we can get it, but we’re pretty much expecting it to go away.”
889A wave of distributed content is coming — will publishers sink or swim?
Instead of just publishing to their own websites, news organizations are being asked to publish directly to platforms they don’t control. Is the hunt for readers enough to justify losing some independence?
448This is my next step: How The Verge wants to grow beyond tech blogging
“We want to use technology as a way to define pop culture, in the way Rolling Stone used music and Wired used the early Internet.”
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Hechinger Report
The Daily Telegraph
Animal Político
Austin American-Statesman
Frontline
Flipboard
Alaska Dispatch
New England Center for Investigative Reporting
Yahoo
Poynter Institute
Kickstarter