U.K. Papers' Paywalls A Test Of Relevance

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Conventional wisdom says readers are only willing to pay for online news that fuels their passion or helps them make money. Across the Atlantic, however, a pair of leading daily newspapers — The Times and The Sunday Times — have ignored that conventional wisdom, putting up an ironclad digital paywall and testing whether they can remain relevant while telling readers they can no longer enjoy a free ride.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Conventional wisdom tells us that readers are only willing to pay for online news that, A, fuels their passion, or B, helps them make money. Across the Atlantic, though, two leading daily newspapers have ignored conventional wisdom, putting up an ironclad digital pay wall.

As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, they're testing whether they can remain relevant while telling readers the free ride is over.

(Soundbite of protest)

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: On a recent visit to London, I came across huge protests clotting the streets. College students were enraged by the government's proposals to raise tuition. It made headlines everywhere including the Times of London. But if you clicked on thetimes.co.uk, nothing. The Times of London and its sister paper the Sunday Times together have one of daily journalism's most rigid digital pay walls.

Aside from a brief trial period, if you don't pay, you can't read their content on the Web, on the iPad, iPhone, wherever.

Tom Whitwell is assistant editor of the Times of London, with the responsibility for its website. He says making people pay is crucial.

Mr. TOM WHITWELL (Assistant Editor, Times of London): You could get an enormous audience of tens of millions of people reading your stuff, but you wouldn't actually get enough money to sustain journalism and the work that we do.

FOLKENFLIK: The online pass costs a pound a day or 2 pounds a week, about $13.50 a month. The pay wall yields a different caliber of audience, one more consistent with its print readership, so editorial decisions reflect that.

Whitwell says Web editors are no longer tempted to slap up stories on Justin Bieber.

Mr. WHITWELL: In many ways, what we are doing is what we've been doing for 225 years. We've been producing fantastic journalism, selling that journalism and selling advertising alongside that journalism. And that's a very simple model.

FOLKENFLIK: It's a big bet by Rupert and James Murdoch, the father and son team who control the papers' British parent company, News International. The bet is that digital readers can be taught to pay. Rupert Murdoch also just launched The Daily, a publication only fully available to paying subscribers on iPads.

British media executives are watching closely and some are cheering. Andrew Neil is the former editor of the Sunday Times. He's now chairman of Spectator magazines.

Mr. ANDREW NEIL (Chairman, Spectator Magazines): We all fell for it, all this dot-com nonsense that somehow you can monetize eyeballs. We need to charge. I run magazines. I send journalists to Kabul. I send them to Arizona. I send them to India. That's expensive.

FOLKENFLIK: But the pay wall's effect on the reach of the Murdoch papers has been direct and dire. Until the pay wall's creation last summer, the two Times papers drew 20 million distinct online readers a month. Now, about 105,000 people visit their sites or digital products monthly, meaning the papers lost about 95 percent of their online audience. Only some 50,000 people actually have paid monthly digital subscriptions.

Emily Bell argues the Murdochs are making the wrong bet. Bell is the former director of digital content at the Guardian, and she is now head of the Tow Center at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She says readers can find plenty of other free news coverage easily enough, from the Telegraph, the BBC, the Guardian, from all over.

Ms. EMILY BELL (Director, Tow Center, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism): You know, and once you're saying, well, yeah, but we can charge and make it difficult; we can make it harder for you to access news...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BELL: ...and then you're going to pay for it. You know, that's a really poor proposition.

FOLKENFLIK: Even so, some other papers are also seeking online revenues and more may join their ranks. The Financial Times has a metered pay wall, meaning you can read a handful of articles free each month before you have to pay. The New York Times is expected to announce a similar model in March.

But you can find support for Bell's argument in the heart of London, where Matthew Lane runs a bike shop.

Mr. MATTHEW LANE: I don't have time to pick up a newspaper and I don't have time to sit down and read one. So, if I can get it online when I want to or I can pick it up on my iPhone in the morning, then it's there.

FOLKENFLIK: Over at Parliament, a Conservative member of the House of Commons named Nick Boles told me the pay wall may well be the Times of London's salvation, and that he's happy to subscribe online.

Mr. NICK BOLES (Member, House of Commons): But I have observed nevertheless that it has diminished their influence, because, bluntly, lots of people don't read it now. And so if they break a story, sometimes it hasn't really broken because it was broken behind a pay wall and not everybody sees it.

FOLKENFLIK: And that's the dilemma. Juliet Kennard runs the pay for content project for both the Times of London and the Sunday Times. She says the attraction is much stronger than people initially think.

Ms. JULIET KENNARD (Times of London): When you frame it within a free Internet world, you obviously get, you know, initially, kind of why are you asking me to pay for this. But when you frame it within the debate of you've always paid for it when you've read the newspaper, and they start to work that out, then they really do change very quickly.

FOLKENFLIK: Kennard says the resulting smaller audience is a more intense and engaged one, one more likely to be appealing to advertisers. How that translates to meaningful profits is still a work in progress. But wait, what about that collapse of readership?

Ms. KENNARD: We don't make those comparisons with the old world and the new world. And we are in a sense doing something very different.

FOLKENFLIK: At parent company News International, a spokeswoman says the pay walls are there for the long haul. There is, she says, no Plan B.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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