Assistant editor for online Tom Whitwell and Director of Times Digital Gurtej Sandhu told participants at a lunch during the 17th World Editors Forum a few details about the progress of the Times of London's new paywall and the thinking behind it. Both were adamant that they could not as yet reveal any figures, but said that they were happy with the sign-ups that they had received so far and that numbers might be released in weeks or months.
The order to adopt the paywall came directly from Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp, which owns the Times' parent company News International. Murdoch has been extremely vocal about the importance of implementing paid online content both for financial and principled reasons since spring 2009. But Whitwell explained that the thinking at the paper has suggested for some time that this could be the right move to take.
About 18 months ago Whitwell said, the Times counted about 20 to 25 million unique users a month, less than other leading UK papers such as the Guardian, Telegraph or Daily Mail which are approaching or exceeding 40 million. Looking at these more successful sites, Whitwell said that they seemed to be verging towards integrating "a lot of celebrity coverage," for example, and the Times felt "that this wasn't something that was appropriate for us. "
So, the Times decided to focus on a smaller but more engaged audience, one with whom the paper could have a stronger relationship. For some features, a smaller audience is more effective, Whitwell said, such as live chats. Previously, up to 10,000 people might turn up but now the groups are small enough to generate real dialogue.
The mentality of a paid site is different to that of one supported by advertising, Whitwell explained. "You have to think about the user. What we want at the end of the month is for someone to renew their subscription and come back." The focus is on providing subscribers with a quality product, rather than trying to catch casual readers. There is still advertising on the paid site, but the balance is leaning more towards editorial.
Sandhu defended the paper's thinking against those who say that the Times is trying to "put the genie back in the bottle." He argues that "the definition of madness is to do the same thing again and again and expect a different result:" free online content is not working and it's time to try something else.
- - The paid website costs £1 a day to access or £2 a week (about £8.30 a month)
- - The iPad app is £9.99 a month.
- - The print paper is sold for £8.20 a week or about £35 a month.
"Before we launched, there was an awful lot of internal debate about the price," Whitwell said, adding that the paper did a lot of research. "Once launched, however, we had almost no negative feedback, people thought it was a fair price."
"We are not asking readers to pay that much," Sandhu said. "It would be more punishment to our loyal readers if we were not to sustain our journalism."
Model: the importance of simplicity
The Times paywall is the most impenetrable of that of any major English-language newspaper so far, and as such has attracted considerable attention and some scepticism. The clear risk is that the paper will be entirely left out of the global news dialogue - readers can't Tweet about articles or send them to their friends, for example - and will miss out on new readers and hence become dramatically less relevant. Papers such as the New York Times are planning to go for a more porous model, whereby readers can access a certain number of articles per month before being asked to pay.
"Obviously we looked at lots and lots of different models," Whitwell said. The advantage of the full paywall is, he said, that it is "very clear and very simple" and readers understand what they are paying for. With more flexible models, or those that include Google's First Click Free, there is often some doubt about what exactly you get as a paying subscriber and a feeling that you are being deceived, he said. This notion of simplicity is also the motivation for putting blogs behind the paywall, he added.
Younger readers who have grown up with the Internet and digital news will presumably be harder to grab than older people who are accustomed to subscribing to newspapers. "Young people are not a particular target of this particular product," Whitwell said. Sandhu added that the paper had already seen a decline in younger people before implementing a paywall, and that young people in general do not read newspapers.
Content - how to persuade readers to pay?
Evidently there are many people who will decide that they can find similar news elsewhere and won't subscribe. But why will those that do? The new websites have a focus on exclusivity, and try to escape the idea that news has become a commodity, Whitwell explained. Certain features seem to have contributed to definite peaks in subscriptions, such as a serialisation of Peter Mandelson's book, Sandhu said.
The Sunday Times now has its own separate website, the logic of which has been questioned, but Whitwell insisted that the Sunday paper is a very different product so it makes "perfect sense" for it to have another website.
On the iPad
The main difference between putting news on the iPad, as opposed to online, Sandhu said, is that content has a beginning and an end: "you deliver a certain package that has a hierarchy" and "people consume how you want them to consume." The Times is released once a day on its app, in the morning and a significant number of people download it every day and there are people who "literally flick through every single page," he said.
Will the paywall 'work'?
Weeks after the paywall's implementation, it was widely reported that readership of the Times websites had dropped by almost 90% compared to February 2010. In late September, Comscore data showed that the Times had lost more visitors between July and August than other sites have. However, the paper clearly anticipated a sharp drop in readership and this was not a surprise.
Overall, the Times' paywall can be interpreted as a move towards becoming a more targeted, publication with an elitist focus. It will be interesting to see the effect that this has on the UK newspaper landscape, even more so after fellow News International publication the News of the World follows with its own paywall in upcoming months.
"We're breaking new ground for advertisers and consumers. This time next year we'll have stronger answers," Whitwell said.
Would the paper consider softening the paywall if it does not meet its financial goals? It seems as if there is a strong commitment to maintaining the project regardless of outcome, in some form at least. "We will give this as much time as is required," Sandhu said, "but I don't think we'll go back from the principle that journalism has value."