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 assistant editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Stability is essential to solve the pension problem

The new chancellor must ensure we have a period of stability for pension policymaking in order for everyone to acclimatise to a new era of personal responsibility in retirement, says 

There was a time when retirement seemed to take care of itself. It was normal to work, retire and then receive the state pension plus a company final salary pension, often a fairly generous figure, which also paid out to a spouse or partner on death.

That normality simply doesn’t exist for most people in 2016. There is much less certainty on what retirement looks like. The genesis of these experiences also starts much earlier. As final salary schemes fall out of favour, the UK is reaching a tipping point where savings in ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes become the most prevalent form of traditional retirement saving.

Saving for a ‘pension’ can mean a multitude of different things and the way your savings are organised can make a big difference to whether or not you are able to do what you planned in your later life – and also how your money is treated once you die.

George Osborne established a place for himself in the canon of personal savings policy through the introduction of ‘freedom and choice’ in pensions in 2015. This changed the rules dramatically, and gave pension income a level of public interest it had never seen before. Effectively the policymakers changed the rules, left the ring and took the ropes with them as we entered a new era of personal responsibility in retirement.

But what difference has that made? Have people changed their plans as a result, and what does 'normal' for retirement income look like now?

Old Mutual Wealth has just released. with YouGov, its third detailed survey of how people in the UK are planning their income needs in retirement. What is becoming clear is that 'normal' looks nothing like it did before. People have adjusted and are operating according to a new normal.

In the new normal, people are reliant on multiple sources of income in retirement, including actively using their home, as more people anticipate downsizing to provide some income. 24 per cent of future retirees have said they would consider releasing value from their home in one way or another.

In the new normal, working beyond your state pension age is no longer seen as drudgery. With increasing longevity, the appeal of keeping busy with work has grown. Almost one-third of future retirees are expecting work to provide some of their income in retirement, with just under half suggesting one of the reasons for doing so would be to maintain social interaction.

The new normal means less binary decision-making. Each choice an individual makes along the way becomes critical, and the answers themselves are less obvious. How do you best invest your savings? Where is the best place for a rainy day fund? How do you want to take income in the future and what happens to your assets when you die?

 An abundance of choices to provide answers to the above questions is good, but too much choice can paralyse decision-making. The new normal requires a plan earlier in life.

All the while, policymakers have continued to give people plenty of things to think about. In the past 12 months alone, the previous chancellor deliberated over whether – and how – to cut pension tax relief for higher earners. The ‘pensions-ISA’ system was mooted as the culmination of a project to hand savers complete control over their retirement savings, while also providing a welcome boost to Treasury coffers in the short term.

During her time as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann voiced her support for the current system of taxing pension income, rather than contributions, indicating a split between the DWP and HM Treasury on the matter. Baroness Altmann’s replacement at the DWP is Richard Harrington. It remains to be seen how much influence he will have and on what side of the camp he sits regarding taxing pensions.

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has entered the Treasury while our new Prime Minister calls for greater unity. Following a tumultuous time for pensions, a change in tone towards greater unity and cross-department collaboration would be very welcome.

In order for everyone to acclimatise properly to the new normal, the new chancellor should commit to a return to a longer-term, strategic approach to pensions policymaking, enabling all parties, from regulators and providers to customers, to make decisions with confidence that the landscape will not continue to shift as fundamentally as it has in recent times.

Steven Levin is CEO of investment platforms at Old Mutual Wealth.

To view all of Old Mutual Wealth’s retirement reports, visit: products-and-investments/ pensions/pensions2015/