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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 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 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
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