Times readers go AWOL before paywall goes up

The Times Online

New websites have their work cut out as market share is more than halved by registration requirement

BY Nigel Horne LAST UPDATED AT 08:30 ON Mon 28 Jun 2010

There are signs that Rupert Murdoch's high-risk decision to put the new websites of his two upmarket London newspapers, the Times and the Sunday Times, behind a paywall, is already in trouble. Data from Experian Hitwise shows the two sites' market share has collapsed from 4.37 per cent in the week ending May 22 to 1.81 per cent on June 23.

And that's before any readers have had to start paying. It seems that just having to register - with the knowledge that they will be asked to pay £1 a day or £2 a week sometime soon - is enough of a turn-off for many people.

News International, the company that owns Murdoch's London papers, has declined to comment on the Experian Hitwise figures.

Another indicator that all is not going according to plan was a full-page "why you should pay for us" article in the Sunday Times (print edition) yesterday.

"Quality journalism is expensive to produce," reporter Richard Woods began his report, before going on to argue that "properly informed reporting, analysis, investigations and the sharpest wit" cost money.

Woods said this was why the Sunday Times and the Times were about to start charging a fee for their new websites, "believing that it is in the best interests of both readers and journalists".

He went on: "It is not asking a lot: £2 for a week's subscription." Readers may be forgiven for asking whether that sentence falls under the category "informed reporting", "analysis" or "sharp wit".

Not surprisingly, Woods's report made much of the fact that the Times's great competitor, the Guardian, is not charging for online access to its content.

Even the Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, who argues against paywalls with almost religious zeal, has admitted that guardian.co.uk needs to double or triple its advertising revenue in order to cover its costs. But "that ain't going to happen" Woods reports, after interviewing adman Sir Martin Sorrell.

"We think online media models do not work on pure advertising," Sorrell told Woods. "We are very much in favour of paywalls. We've been saying for a while [that] we are in favour of paid-for content and consolidation [of the number of media outlets]."

Woods did not choose to quote from the Hitwise data.

All is not lost, of course, but the Times's subscription target is going to be harder to meet if the base readership is falling. A recent Harris poll of Times online readers showed that four per cent were extremely likely to take up a subscription, two per cent were 'very likely', four per cent 'fairly likely' and 13 per cent 'somewhat likely'.

Any expert in the fickle business of subscription marketing would tell the Times that the 'fairly likely' and 'somewhat likely' brigade can be discounted immediately.

That leaves six per cent - the 'extremelys' and the 'verys' - who might well take up a subscription.

Let's be realistic and call that five per cent. In subscription terms, that's still a very healthy hit rate. And if the Times websites could hope for five per cent of the 22 million uniques a month they were getting before they started demanding registration, that would give Murdoch a very nice revenue stream.

But if those monthly uniques are collapsing as fast as the Hitwise data suggests, then the Times websites will have to fight a good deal harder for their subscribers. · 

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