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.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage