The Times paywall – too soon to call?

18 Aug 2010
By atom42

As many articles commenting on The Times paywall strategy have emphasised, there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding it. No one quite knows yet if it’s been successful or not, and I’m sure even Mr Murdoch himself won’t have come to any strong conclusions.

As our journalist contributor Jon noted, Mr Murdoch has deep pockets, and a stubbornness to match. It will certainly be a while before we find out for definite whether this new model has survived; and longer before Rupert Murdoch admits defeat, if it comes to that.

Personally, I think the move was a bad choice, but perhaps a necessary one with the direction that news, and online consumption, is going. As a regular Joe as opposed to a journalist, I’m here to vouch for the fickle reader; the one that doesn’t particularly mind whether he reads the Guardian, the Independent or The Times; and definitely the one that goes elsewhere when presented with a paid service that he can get free everywhere else.

Offer me something different!

Perhaps if The Times had something very different – something very special – to offer for the £2 per week subscription fee there would be stronger encouragement to join. Unfortunately, if ‘something different’ is what they offer, this is not the message the public are receiving. Publicity surrounding the paywall rarely reflects anything other than “success or failure”.

The problem is that genuinely unique news is hard to come by; we’ve seen the same stories reported in our newspapers forever. Why would it change now? The Times need to provide something to their readers to make them stick with the new model; something that really makes them stand out. This may well be the holy grail that The Times attempts to discover.

The Times fan club

I understand where Jon is coming from when he mentions ‘people like joining clubs’. But don’t people like joining clubs that are free as opposed to those that you have to pay for (and that used to be free). To use a sports club metaphor, this is the equivalent of paying to go to a sports club when there’s a free one next door with the same facilities, but yours has a slightly nicer reception. At the end of the day you still get the same work out.

There will always be Times die-hards who will stick with the paper through thick and thin. However I can’t help but think the majority of the public are fickle; and that the die-hards, unless presented with something worth sticking with, will eventually abandon ship if they’re not getting their money’s worth.

The great paywall

With the paywall acting as a divide between public and paper – without publicity for what’s inside, traffic is never going to increase. There’s no incentive for cold users to sign up; and why would they? There are many conflicting stories on the traffic decline seen since the paywall. The Guardian reported in July that The Times has seen a 66% loss in traffic, while many sources expected it would be much higher – up to 90%. Further stories reiterate the challenges facing The Times with the next hurdle; when the introductory rate of £1 is taken away.

Will this current test period have been enough to convince readers to stick with the paper despite the increased price? There’s surely no doubt that the will be some loss, but we’ll have to wait and see how much.

The Times they are a-changin’

For us there’s nothing further to do than to wait and hold our breath until we find out for sure whether Rupert Murdoch has made this work. For The Times, there’s undoubtedly more that they could (and should) be doing to encourage users to sign up. Visitors to the site should be enticed with what’s in store for them behind the purple subscribe button. Perhaps we’ll see start to see tactics such as this as the service looks around for a more substantial user base.

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