Telegraph institutes paywall overseas

Is the paper abdicating US growth in favour of a quick buck?

The Guardian's Josh Halliday reports that the Telegraph has launched a paywall for online readers based outside of the UK:

Telegraph.co.uk is moving to a metered paywall model similar to the New York Times on Thursday after years of planning. The new payment system was introduced at 12.00 GMT according to an internal email seen by MediaGuardian.

The site will remain free for UK users, but overseas visitors will be asked to pay £1.99 for a month's access after viewing the site 20 times.

The move has been in the pipeline at Telegraph Media Group for more than two years. It has been hit by continued delays and has been hampered by the departure of several key executives.

62 per cent of the Telegraph's readership is from overseas, so there is a considerable amount at stake here. Nonetheless, the move feels like an abdication of sorts for the paper, which remains one of the most consistently profitable in the UK.

In charging the £2 a month to international readers, the paper is attempting to monetize its large overseas base; but the fact that that paywall is not going up domestically makes it apparent that the leadership fear falling prey to the same fate as the Times, which has struggled to stay relevant in the national conversation when it can only be read by subscribers.

If the Telegraph is treating its overseas readership as a fixed quantity, that decision makes sense; and anecdotal evidence suggests that the paper is especially popular amongst expatriates, who will already have that relationship before they enter the paywall.

Nonetheless, the strategy is in stark contrast to papers like the Guardian and Mail, which treat their overseas readership as a potential source of significant growth. The Guardian takes the exact opposite approach to the Telegraph, charging for UK tablet readers while offering the same content up for free in the US, while the Mail has piling resources into its US branch, and has made a name for itself providing the sort of celebrity content which US newspapers have little expertise in.

If there is a precursor for what the Telegraph is doing, it's the Independent, which also started to charge US users a small paywall after they read more than 20 articles a month.

Unfortunately, the Independent's move wasn't particularly successful. PaidContent's Robert Andrews writes:

While Independent.co.uk’s domestic UK audience has jumped by 75 percent during the period, its Rest-Of-World traffic (dominated by the US) has grown by just 5.5 percent.

Leonard acknowledges overseas audiences “don’t necessarily stick”, but “advertising has flourished for us in North America so we’d like that to continue”.

“So we’re creating new reasons to engage with us,” Leonard tells Journalism.co.uk. “If we were the New York Times, and had a real following, particularly a subscription-based audience, I think we might have a different view on that.”

If the Telegraph gets it right, they could have a nice little income; but even the best case scenario is that they have sacrificed the chance of growing their future audience for a payday now. That may still be a prudent move; but it's also the safe one.

A notable Telegraph cover. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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