So just how is the Times paywall faring?

As well as losing half its online readers, new data hints that subscribers aren’t spending much time

Trying to measure the pace at which the Times has been losing online readers since the erection of its paywall has become a constant task for media journalists and bloggers. Since the website went behind a full paywall on 2 July, the critics have been lining up to declare their scepticism, Michael Wolff chief among them. Early on, Wolff highlighted what new data released this week has shown to be the biggest problem of this paywall experiment -- that even those who subscribe don't seem to be demonstrating particular loyalty to the site.

The Guardian weighed in early on with data it produced in collaboration with Experian Hitwise, a "web metrics" company, which seemed to show that the take-up rate for registration on the new site was only around a quarter of visitors. Subsequent analysis and modelling by the Guardian's media team projected that the fall-off in visitors would be around 90 per cent, coincidentally the figure that the Sunday Times editor, John Witherow, mentioned before the paywall went up.

But Dan Sabbagh found even before the Guardian did its analysis that these graphs from Hitwise were "utterly inconclusive". Without official audited figures, he says, it is impossible to work out how many visitors there have been, and how many of them are now paying for access.

Later on in July, however, Sabbagh conducted a fascinating analysis of how the finances add up across print and online, and found that "the 27,500 new digital subscribers are equivalent to 10,576 new print readers". But considering that the Times and the Sunday Times together are experiencing an annual print sales decline of over 45,000, the paywall would seem to be doing little other than just stemming the tide.

The latest data released this week by ComScore shows that numbers of unique visitors to the site have plummeted, as was expected and predicted. But the more worrying statistic is that of the average time each visitor spends on the site, which has also nearly halved.

As the NS's Jon Bernstein pointed out on the very first day of the paywall, part of News International's aim was to attract a smaller, dedicated group of paying subscribers who would interact with the publication and attract much higher-yielding advertising. Now it seems certain that not only are fewer people coming to the site, but those who pay for access are not spending as much time there as those who used to visit for free.

But both Bernstein and Sabbagh have pointed out that this could be due to the "bounce" effect, when non-subscribers come to the home page and then leave immediately, thus dragging down the average. No data so far is available about how much the paywall has raised, and without properly audited time figures it's hard to be definitive, but it is still difficult to see how these numbers can be good news for Murdoch's great experiment.

Aside from the figures, some people are still debating the efficacy of this kind of paywall model in the first place. Matthew Buckland, in particular, feels that a neutral intermediary is the only way people are going to be persuaded to pay for news. For him, the proposed Google Newspass system fits this bill, which would allow people to manage multiple subscriptions to different media outlets, and to balance long-term commitments with one-off payments. It would also, crucially, be integrated into Google's search facilities, something that will surely hurt the Murdoch model as it stands, if it hasn't done so already.

The Newspass service has already been piloted in Italy, the Italian daily La Repubblica has reported. Google has not commented on what the next step with Newspass will be, but what is clear is that it is going to rely on publishers taking the plunge and starting to charge for their content.

As Roy Greenslade points out today, "single-minded, opinionated, determined entrepreneurs have always been the driving force behind successful newspapers", and while it certainly doesn't look like the Times paywall is going to be the game-changing success that News International might have hoped for, it has provided a fixed point for other organisations to jump off from.

Whatever you think of Murdoch, and however badly his paywall fails in the end, there can be no argument that he has taken the first step towards what is sure to become a changed industry. But given the huge fall in numbers of staff employed by newspapers and the losses everywhere, it is hard not to be pessimistic about what it will look like. And the new data seems only to enhance such fears.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.