Here’s the problem with the Times paywall

In the link economy, can you really afford not to play?

Paul Waugh, deputy political editor of the London Evening Standard and one of the UK's most well-read political bloggers, has stumbled upon one of the big problems with the paywall News International is putting around its flagship titles, the Times and the Sunday Times.

Waugh writes today about the Education Secretary Michael Gove's "love affair" with his ministerial red box and the fact that those red boxes really do have their own chauffeur-driven cars. It's an enteraining piece, and much of it comes from this morning's Times and a column by Sarah Vine, Michael's other half. Waugh cites the piece, but before he does so he notes:

Here's Sarah (it's behind the Times's new paywall so sorry for lack of a link) today:

So the Times is still providing great source material but getting none of the traffic.

News International may argue that the audience it does retain behind the paywall -- estimated at just 10 per cent of the existing one -- will be more valuable to potential advertisers, and more lucrative to a publisher as a consequence. Not necessarily.

According to a straw poll of media buyers who were asked by trade magazine Campaign (and reported by the Guardian) whether the Times titles will gain a greater yield per advert from their subscribers, half said "maybe"; the other half said "no".

Other titles, notably the Wall Street Journal (proprietor: Rupert Murdoch), have found a way to have their online cake and eat it. The WSJ has one million paid subscribers but 21 million unique users per month -- a neat trick that involves giving limited monthly access to non-subscribers (a trick that the Financial Times has aped). The benefit?

  • Passing readers can be sold the benefits of a subscription
  • A larger number of banners and sky scrappers can be served
  • The newspaper can still play an active part in the social media conversation

Somewhere between New York and London, Murdoch seems to have forgotten the validity of these arguments.

Special subscription offer: get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.

Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.