So major UK dailies the Times and Sunday Times have gone behind an online paywall: those wishing to read beyond the homepage will have to register and pay £1 for a day's access, £2 for a week. The sum is not huge but in today's news landscape where online readers jump swiftly and easily between news sources, how many are likely to pay?
The Guardian's Roy Greenslade noted that a column on the Sunday Times' site this weekend had lifted an item from a free website, Gentlemenranters, without giving proper attribution. The editor of Gentelmenranters confirmed to Greenslade that the Sunday paper had not contacted the site. In the world of blogging and linking it has become almost standard practice to refer to the work of others, but citing the source is essential, and when a website is behind a paywall there does seem to be a feeling that it is less justifiable to take content from other sources. Presumably this is because, if people are paying for content, they expect it to be top quality and definitely original.
This raises the question of whether people do value and expect more from content that they pay for more than free content. News organisations all want their content to be regarded as valuable, but the ubiquity of news online does mean that many people may well have started to take content for granted, and flick through different sources, disregarding articles that are not immediately gripping.
This has for some time been one of Murdoch's arguments for implementing paywalls, and it is a valid concern. But do people now value news enough to pay for a specific paper? A loyal base of print subscribers will get online access free. Of those who do subscribe to the new Times websites, there will presumably be some who immediately sign up because they love the paper, and maybe others who later realize that they miss it so much that they are prepared to pay, and others who choose to make a one off purchase for a day or a week to access a specific piece. But has the Times is now practically invisible on Google, and bloggers can't link to it, how might new readers find the site?
Another Guardian blog post has offered "A warm welcome to guardian.co.uk for all former readers of the Times." Writer John Crace asserts that "here at the Guardian we can offer everything you ever wanted from the Times - and more - for nothing" and offers a tongue-in-cheek comparison of the two papers. Although many of those commenting on the article were disparaging about the Guardian's self-righteousness and questioned its own business model, its point is legitimate: there undoubtedly exist many good-quality, viable alternatives to the Times for readers who do not want to pay.
The Guardian has made it clear that charging for online news is not something that it intends to do in the near future. Editor Alan Rusbridger has firmly underlined his belief that news should be free, stressing the importance of a wide reach and immediacy of access. The paper consistently has among the highest number of unique users of any UK paper (upwards of 30 million per month) and although its losses are currently substantial, it seems to be holding out for a way to make money from these.
And as well as other quality dailies with free websites, there is the BBC. Newspapers might be able to offer superior comment and analysis, but for the news, the BBC is an excellent source. The new Times sites are impressive, with improved navigation and search, and more multimedia elements: interactive graphics as well as more photos and videos. 'Behind the story' is also a useful new feature, and the live Q&As are likely to appeal. However, it is not far and away the best news website available, which is arguably what it needs to be in order to succeed in charging.
Poynter's Bill Mitchell took a look at the Times' paywall alongside two other British examples, the Financial Times and the Guardian. He was surprised by the strength of the Times paywall: the fact that articles are not indexed on Google and that all content, even blogs, are now paid-only. Other papers, including the New York Times, are looking at a 'metered' strategy which would allow readers to access a certain number of articles free per month before being asked to pay, overall keeping the paper more visible. Even Murdoch's financial daily, the Wall Street Journal, offers some articles free via Google.
As Steve Outing notes, at least Murdoch "has the guts" to try out a paywall strategy on a major daily, and to try it in the most extreme sense. However, the extreme strategy is undoubtedly highly risky. As well as the inevitable loss of online reader numbers which risks marginalizing the Times and making it less relevant in the online news conversation, there is the subsequent risk that journalists will not want to work for a paper where their work is not read by many. It was one of the complaints made by New York Times star journalists such as Thomas Friedman during the TimesSelect experiment which ended in 2007. One law blogger from the Times, Tim Kevan, has already quit and been taken in by the Guardian - will others follow?
So in its quest for more revenue and trying to get readers to give greater value to its content, the Times risks losing an awful lot. If it does end up making a huge profit (paidContent looks at the figures here), others will follow and News Corp might end up dramatically changing the news landscape. There has been so much talk about paywalls with little consensus: doing it is the only way to find out if it actually will work, and the rest of news industry must be relieved that somebody is trying. That said, it really is a big risk.