Why we'll all be behind paywalls before too long

Looking like a no-brainer.

If declining print newspapers don’t find a way to monetise their growing digital audiences they will go out of business, it’s as simple as that.

Luckily, there appears to be a way to do that which – in the words of one media analyst – has “no downside”.

The saviour of journalism could be the paywall, or to be more precise – the metered paywall – a tactic pioneered by the FT in 2007 when it started limiting free access to 8 articles per month.

Because the vast majority of web readers flit in just once or twice a month to news websites, a metered paywall is a way of making money out of the most loyal ones while retaining a higher overall volume of traffic.

The metered paywall also offers new readers ample opportunity to sample your content and means your site can still be shared and promoted via social media and Google.

The early evidence from Telegraph Media Group is that if you set the meter high enough, in its case at 20 articles a month, the paywall has little impact at all on your overall traffic.

According to ABC, in April (its first full month with the paywall in place) attracted just over 3m ‘unique browsers’ a day, up 30 per cent year on year. This was a faster rate of growth than the still completely free Guardian on 4.8m a day, up 23 per cent.

The FT now has more than 328,000 paying digital subscribers versus a paid-for print circulation of around 240,000.

Two years ago the New York Times limited free website access to 10 free articles per month. By the end of last year its subscriber numbers had reached 640,000.

At the start of this year Andrew Sullivan put his US-based blog The Dish behind a metered paywall (with seven stories a month free). So far the new model has brought in gross revenue of $680,000. Not bad for a site with a staff of seven (plus two interns).

The question appears to be now not why have a paywall, but why not?

Mail Online and The Guardian are the only UK newspaper websites which attract more traffic than the Telegraph.

With a still profitable newspaper to back it up, Mail Online can afford to wait a little longer and see how much further its global traffic can rocket (according to ABC it attracted 120m ‘unique browsers’ in April).

The Guardian needs the money more (in the year to the end of March 2012 it made a loss of £44.2m). But like Mail Online, its focus is currently on building as big a global web audience as it possibly can (it attracted 82m global ‘unique browsers’ in April).

The Sun goes behind a total paywall as of 1 August (joining The Times and Sunday Times).

The Independent and Mirror Group are the other major national newspaper website players and (like the Mail and Guardian) they remain completely free for the present.

But I suspect it still only a matter of time before all the major news websites in the commercial sector adopt some form of paywall. Because on the early evidence from the Telegraph, it is looking like a no-brainer.

Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.