U.K. Papers' Paywalls A Test Of Relevance 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.
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U.K. Papers' Paywalls A Test Of Relevance

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U.K. Papers' Paywalls A Test Of Relevance

U.K. Papers' Paywalls A Test Of Relevance

U.K. Papers' Paywalls A Test Of Relevance

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133943612/133943589" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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:

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

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

M: 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: 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.

M: 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: 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.

M: 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)

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

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

M: 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.

M: 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.

M: 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?

M: 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: David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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