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.