The best-guarded secret in Wapping is finally out: the Times paywall figures. News International announced this morning that 105,000 people have paid to access the site since the paper went behind a paywall in July.
The 105,000 customers have been erroneously described by some as "online subscribers", a label which ignores the fact that a significant number were one-off users. Here is a detailed breakdown of the figures:
– 105,000 have paid to access the site in any form.
– Around 50,000 of this total are monthly subscribers to the website/iPad/Kindle edition.
– The rest are one-off users or pay-as-you-go customers.
– In addition, 100,000 print subscribers have activated their free digital subscription.
These figures are far from catastrophic, and with the launch of the Sunday Times app still to come, Wapping executives are in a bullish mood this morning.
Dan Sabbagh, the Guardian's new head of media and technology (and former media editor of the Times), suggests a notional figure of £12m a year in revenue if you assume that the average customer pays about £10 a month.
He explains: "The full price for online is £2 a week, so less than £10, but the iPad buyer pays a bit more forking out £9.99 for a little less than most months at 28 days."
But in many ways a better measure of the success of the paywall is not numbers of web subscribers, but print sales. Rupert Murdoch is more concerned with pushing people back to his papers than he is with successfully charging for digital content.
As his biographer Michael Wolff has written:
The more he can choke off the internet as a free news medium, the more publishers he can get to join him, the more people he can bring back to his papers. It is not a war he can win in the long term, but a little Murdoch rearguard action might get him to his own retirement. Then it's somebody else's problem.
Print sales of the Times stood at 503,642 in June (the month before the launch of the paywall), but the ABC figures for September put sales at 486,868. So, even though the paper's content is no longer freely available online, print sales have continued to fall.
It's a reminder that websites alone are not responsible for the long-term decline of print. Other factors, such as the rise of 24-hour TV news and more hectic lifestyles, have also hit sales.
As an attempt to establish a reliable online revenue stream, the Times's paywall experiment should be judged cautiously as a success. As an attempt to salvage print and to push back the tide of free news, however, the move has so far failed.