Times to charge for web

The Times and Sunday Times
newspapers will start charging to access their websites in June, owner News
International (NI) has announced.

Users will pay £1 for a day’s
access and £2 for a week’s subscription.

The move opens a new front in the
battle for readership and will be watched closely by the industry.

NI chief executive Rebekah Brooks
said it was “a crucial step towards making the business of news an
economically exciting proposition”.

Both titles will launch new
websites in early May, separating their digital presence for the first time and
replacing the existing, combined site, Times Online.

The two new sites will be available
for a free trial period to registered customers. And payment will give customers
access to both sites.

With newspaper sales in decline,
companies have been searching for a business model that will make money from
their websites.

Risk

But with so much news content
available for free on the internet, NI’s decision to charge is seen by many
people as a high risk strategy.

Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp
owns NI, has led a fierce campaign against internet sites which distribute news
content from his companies. He has criticised Google in particular.

James Harding, editor of The Times,
agreed that NI’s paywall strategy was a risk. “But it’s less of a risk
than just throwing away our journalism and giving it away from free,” he
told the BBC.

He likened the news industry to the
music industry of four years ago. “People said the game is up for the
music industry because everyone is downloading for free. But now people are
buying from download sites.”

Mrs. Brooks said the decision to
charge came “at a defining moment for journalism… We are proud of our
journalism and unashamed to say that we believe it has value”.

Just the start

And she hinted that two other News
International publications, The Sun and the News of the World, would also go
behind a paywall.

“This is just the start. The
Times and The Sunday Times are the first of our four titles in the UK to move
to this new approach. We will continue to develop our digital products and to
invest and innovate for our customers.”

Privately, executives admit the two
papers are likely to lose thousands of regular online readers – and millions of
more casual ones – says BBC media correspondent Torin Douglas. But they hope £2
a week is a small enough sum to entice many readers over the paywall.

We can expect marketing campaigns
to make comparisons with the price of a cup of coffee, “by which standard,
newspapers remain astonishingly good value,” said Mr. Douglas.

‘Dreamland’

The media industry uses a general
yardstick that about 5 per cent of visitors to news websites are likely to pay
for content. Latest figures show that The Times and Sunday Times had 1.22 million
daily users.

However, Claire Enders, of media
research company Enders Analysis, says that anyone who believes the Times
papers will get a 5 per cent conversion is in “dreamland”.

“This is not just about adding
subscribers, but also strengthening the relationship with loyal readers of the
website and papers. If you are going to try this [charging] then the model they
have chosen is the best way,” she said.

News Corp owns the Wall Street
Journal, which has one of the most successful paid-for sites with about 407,000
electronic subscribers.

But some analysts point out that
the WSJ offers specialist content, and that charging for general news is a
different business model.

The editor-in-chief of the
Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, is a leading sceptic of paywalls and has vowed to
keep most of the content of his newspaper free online. In January he described
the move towards paywall business models as a “hunch”.

Unlike some commentators, Ms Enders
does not expect any of the major UK newspaper groups to follow suit quickly.

Nor does she believe
that Mr. Murdoch’s strategy represents the last throw of the dice for some of
his loss-making papers. “If it fails, Murdoch will think of something
else. He has been supporting his loss-makers for years.”

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