Paywalls Come Tumbling Up

I know – that’s awful. Sorry.
What to make of The Times’ much vaunted and soon to be realised paywall?
At the moment, not a lot. There’ll be a £1 charge for a day’s access and £2 for a week. In terms of the paper itself, the value isn’t bad. The daily paper costs £1 a day anyway, and more at weekends. Simplistically, then, it’s good value.
But it’s not as simple as that is it?
It depends on how you read (sorry – I’m not going to say “consume”) the papers (again – not “content”).
For those who visit sites like The Times’ every day, and spend hours wallowing in the writing, then clearly, this is an exceptional deal. If the subscription includes full access to their archive stretching right back to 1785 then so much the better (although the current prices for that service suggest not).
But if someone sends me a link to something interesting, am I really likely to pay a quid to read it? Almost certainly not.
And therein lies the problem. To what extent are visitors to its website Times fans – for want a better term – and how much are they just passing through, equally as likely to move on to The Guardian or the Telegraph if they can’t get on The Times’ site easily.
This was never going to be an easy nut to crack, and that’s why everyone’s paying so much attention to what Murdoch does with The Times’ website. The ideal scenario would involve painless micro-payments – a few pence here or there to get more access. So not just a pound for the whole paper, but 5p for a single article. Like iTunes addicts, once registered, the incremental costs are so modest as to not trouble anyone. You’d pay your money and read as you wanted.
Getting a scheme going that was applicable to a welter of sites would mean that the costs involved in setting up such a scheme would be mitigated. Debit or credit card processing fees would be minimised. Apple does this to the best of its ability by not immediately charging you 79p when you buy a track. It waits a few days to see if you buy some more. Only then does it charge your card – thus minimising those processing fees.
Subscribers to the paper’s various schemes will get full access to the papers’ sites. But linkage traffic will drift away. If I subscribe, and read something really interesting, is there much point in me recommending it to you and blogging or Tweeting it? While in the short term, that “passing trade” might not be that valuable beyond basic traffic loss and the attendant advertising, The Times is obviously taking the view that those people aren’t really that brand loyal and they’ll instead cash in from their regular readers. But that doesn’t open the paper up to a great deal of discovery. Yes they earn from their current readers, but one of the major issues facing newspapers is to engender a new younger readership. These, though, are exactly the people who are used to getting newspapers free. It doesn’t help that they expect to get a Metro, City AM or Evening Standard free even in newsprint form.
The proposed New York Times and implemented FT methodologies of allowing a limited amount of free exposure before forcing you first to register and then to pay – the meter system – seems to be a better model.
So all said, I can’t say that I’ll be paying a great deal of money for electronic access. It’s a shame that The Times hasn’t adopted a cleverer micro-payment system, and allowing free digital access to people who’ve bought the paper edition that day would be clever (A unique PIN code on each copy perhaps? I think a US magazine – perhaps Entertainment Weekly – tried something similar once).
Does that mean that good journalism shouldn’t be paid for? Certainly not. While I enjoy reading all The Guardian’s website has to offer, I do buy the paper edition daily. That’s not because I feel I have some kind of “moral obligation” to do so, but I’m aware that as a website on its own, it couldn’t exist without some of those print revenues.
Advertisers are need to have to pay high enough rates to support quality writing. But that’s easier said than done.
I have no real solutions. I’m certain that Murdoch doesn’t have one either. From first reports this is about the simplest implementation of a paywall that there could be. Others will do this better.