Earlier this year, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp took the online edition of the Times of London newspaper behind a paywall, meaning that if readers wanted to access the paper’s content online, they could either pay for the print edition (which included an online subscription) or pay to access the Web site. When the firewall went up, initial reports had traffic to the online Times of London drop by 90 percent; however, in an interview on BBC Radio, Times editor James Harding indicated that, overall, the site has lost less than 90 percent of its traffic, and has attracted more than 105,000 paying customers to its Web site and Apple iPad application. Another 100,000 readers have activated the online accounts that come with the print version.
Aside from niche publications like the Wall Street Journal (also owned by News Corp) and Pearson’s The Financial Times, the Times of London is the first major mainstream newspaper to lock its content behind a so-called “paywall” rather than making its content free via the Internet in an ad-supported venture. The traditional newspaper business has been hard-hit by the explosion in Internet publishing, with ad revenues for their print editions rapidly declining, and their Internet editions suddenly having to compete with global news outlets rather than a handful of publications in their local area. Murdoch has pointed to paywalls as a way to salvage the newspaper business by generating revenue directly from readers; however, others in the newspaper industry worry that by locking content away, newspapers risk making themselves irrelevant by driving consumers towards still-free news sources.
The New York Times has announced it plans to phase in paid access to its online content starting next year, with a certain number of articles per-reader being available for free each month.
Is the Times of London’s experiment with a paywall a success or failure? Industry watchers seem to think it’s too early to say. Although a decline in traffic in the neighborhood of 90 percent should be enough to terrify any publisher, advertisers generally prefer to target paid subscribers rather than casual visitors because paid subscribers are more engages with a publication. The real test might be seeing how many subscribers stay with the paywall editions of publications one the novelty of the sites—and perhaps their iPad applications—wears off.
Times readers currently pay £1 a day or £2 per week to access the papers online; the Times’ iPad app runs £9.99 a month.