Here’s the problem with the Times paywall

In the link economy, can you really afford not to play?

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Paul Waugh, deputy political editor of the London Evening Standard and one of the UK's most well-read political bloggers, has stumbled upon one of the big problems with the paywall News International is putting around its flagship titles, the Times and the Sunday Times.

Waugh writes today about the Education Secretary Michael Gove's "love affair" with his ministerial red box and the fact that those red boxes really do have their own chauffeur-driven cars. It's an enteraining piece, and much of it comes from this morning's Times and a column by Sarah Vine, Michael's other half. Waugh cites the piece, but before he does so he notes:

Here's Sarah (it's behind the Times's new paywall so sorry for lack of a link) today:

So the Times is still providing great source material but getting none of the traffic.

News International may argue that the audience it does retain behind the paywall -- estimated at just 10 per cent of the existing one -- will be more valuable to potential advertisers, and more lucrative to a publisher as a consequence. Not necessarily.

According to a straw poll of media buyers who were asked by trade magazine Campaign (and reported by the Guardian) whether the Times titles will gain a greater yield per advert from their subscribers, half said "maybe"; the other half said "no".

Other titles, notably the Wall Street Journal (proprietor: Rupert Murdoch), have found a way to have their online cake and eat it. The WSJ has one million paid subscribers but 21 million unique users per month -- a neat trick that involves giving limited monthly access to non-subscribers (a trick that the Financial Times has aped). The benefit?

  • Passing readers can be sold the benefits of a subscription
  • A larger number of banners and sky scrappers can be served
  • The newspaper can still play an active part in the social media conversation

Somewhere between New York and London, Murdoch seems to have forgotten the validity of these arguments.

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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