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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.