Traffic to the Times' websites has fallen by two-thirds since the introduction of a paywall on 2 July, the Observer reported yesterday, citing data from Experian Hitwise. Previous reports suggested that the site had been expected to lose 90% of its traffic when it introduced charges of £1 a day or £2 a week.
An introductory offer of £1 for a month's access may have contributed to the smaller than expected drop in traffic. But as the biggest drop in audience came before the paywall went up, in the five weeks when visitors were asked to register for access beyond the homepage, it seems it might not actually be the money that is putting people off, but the mere hassle of having to register.
Many newspapers are experimenting with or looking into charging for their online content, but the Times' move is the most dramatic so far, not allowing any website access to those who do not register and pay. The redesigned websites, TheTimes.co.uk and SundayTimes.co.uk, aim to offer a more sophisticated multimedia and interactive experience that users will see as worth paying for. The papers are likely to be just the first of News Corp's general interest newspapers to charge online, with owner Rupert Murdoch having made it clear that he does not believe in free online content.
Cutting off all readers who won't pay is clearly a risky strategy compared to the metered paywall proposed by the New York Times (and already implemented by the Financial Times), for example, which would allow readers to view a certain number of articles per month before being asked to pay, therefore retaining at least some ad revenue and leaving the paper more of a chance to still be part of the global online debate. But if the Times' bold all or nothing strategy pays off, other publishers may well follow.
Meanwhile, the Times' print edition has seen a boost with its serialization of Peter Mandelson's book The Third Man, which was published by the News Corp-owned Harper Collins. According to the Guardian, the Times sold 35,000 more copies on Monday and 30,000 on each of the following two days, plus 15,000 the previous Saturday when an editorial by Mandelson was published. Would these sales have been so high if it had been possible to read the extracts free online?