Rupert Murdoch Paves Way to UK Paywall

Last Updated Jun 1, 2010 5:41 AM EDT

In June, News International (NI) will ramp up its paywall experiment. Rupert Murdoch's UK newspapers, The Times and The Sunday Times have both launched separate websites (The website they share, TimesOnline, will be phased out) with striking new designs and readers will be encouraged to register their details to get a month's access free throughout June. By July, all of the content from the two titles will be charged for.

I spoke about the move to professor George Brock, head of journalism at City University, London. He pointed out that this is an interesting time for UK digital media, which is coming to the end of its first phase of development, characterised by offering free content. This model, he says has largely failed because the advertising revenue can't support the industry. What we have now is a varied array of experiments in charging for content, of which the News International Paywall is one.

Alongside sliding scales of freemium content, another model of note focuses around the tablet PC format, such as the iPad. These devices are designed for reading text on the move and are capable of displaying high quality text and images. News International is also experimenting with this delivery system, which depends on readers downloading an application to read the content. This captures them, making it much easier to charge for content.

But will people pay? Times Editor James Harding was quoted as saying it's time to pay for journalism, but quality news has always been subsidised to some extent. Often it's the case that the reader is actually paying for job adverts or celebrity gossip and gets the news thrown in. Even TV and radio news, which is often thought of as free, is subsidised by advertising or the licence fee, alongside other programmes with better ratings.

The likelihood is many Times devotees will go elsewhere rather than pay the £1 a day or £2 a week being asked for. The Sunday Times own editor, John Witherow expects 90 percent of its readership to pass up on paying to enter the paywall. Brock says even retaining 10 percent of the readership will be doing well. But getting revenue from five percent is going some way to the site paying its way, although it won't replace the shortfall in advertising revenue.

Even so, Brock says the battle isn't won until NI can be sure it's paywall revenues are sustainable. Punters have to keep renewing their subscriptions and that depends on them liking the content they've been asked to pay for. Consequently, we won't know if the paywall experiment has worked until the beginning of next year.

The initial price point is low, he says, so NI will probably try to raise it once it has established a captive market.

The other big danger for the papers is the reaction from their famous columnists, who are probably the real draw for readers. Unlike the news, they won't be found anywhere else. These stars (many of whom speak gushingly about web publishing on a video put out by NI) have all busily ramped up their profiles on social media sites and have a wider rapport with their fans outside of the confines of NI's sites. This will have to stop and those columnists aren't going to like that. It goes against the grain of established thinking on the free-form interconnectedness of web publishing.

Even so close to the cut off date, it's difficult to see how NI's readerships will react. Let's hope, for the papers' sakes, that readers feel they are getting good value once they have paid to jump over the paywall.

(Pic: World Economic Forum cc2.0)