Wall between The Times and the World

The Times & Sunday Times paywall is the talk of the town among journos, again. News International has finally published some figures about the subscriptions. They say that the paywall experiment has attracted 105,000 paid-for sales, around half of which are subscriptions. Many (paywall optimists) have already misinterpreted the significance of this wildly.

However, when you start breaking down the number into one-time users, iPad subscribers and the dedicated monthly subscribers, what you get is not a six-figure number but rather in tens of thousands. I would recommend two commentators who have analysed the numbers: Clay Shirky, one of the most astute media writers of our time, and the Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh.

Seamus McCauley argues that the paywall is not about the Times at all, but about Murdoch’s master plan to bundle his newspapers with Sky and other parts of his media empire. I’m inclined to think so too.

Why else would News International sacrifice the most important thing the loss-making quality newspaper has – influence? The Times has lost 90 percent of its online readers. One can no longer link to the its stories or recommend them to friends on Facebook or Twitter, which is the way a huge amount of people now choose what they read.

It is a networked world now, and The Times has shut itself out of the conversation. This has to be immensily frustrating for the Times’ journalists, who now have to produce exclusive online content for a tiny bunch of believers rather than the millions who used to visit the website.

By the way, I am one of the monthly subscribers as I want to know what the paid content is like. I can tell you that while there is an enormous amount of interesting stories to read, I tend to not even look at the site for days. I get anxious about the newsletter emails I receive from The Times. I should be reading this, but I’ll do it later, I think – and forget about it. Nobody reminds about their best stories via social media.

The saddest observation was to see how few people recommend the stories even within the paysite, to other dedicated Times readers. I clicked on a story about the brilliant Mark Ronson to recommend it, only to notice I was the only one.


About Johanna Vehkoo

Journo, speaker, fact-checker. Formerly Visiting Scholar at Wilson Center, Washington DC, and Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University. Wrote a book about the future of quality journalism. Founder of award-winning startup Long Play. Blogs in both Finnish and English.
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3 Responses to Wall between The Times and the World

  1. I really like your post, Johanna. I haven’t read about Murdoch’s intention to merge his newspapers to Sky, but it really makes sense. I was wondering if the 90% drop in online readership has affected the print readership. We’ve heard that print newspapers were losing readers because they were migrating to online – free – versions. Assuming this as true, shouldn’t we see an increase in paper readership? I doubt the paywall had this effect. Do you have information about that?

    • Funnily enough, the paywall seems to have an unexpected effect on print sales: they have gone down. Here’s an interview with the Guardian’s editor about that.
      MARK COLVIN: But I did read one article which said that that was all happening at a time when they’d just shed about 30,000 print copies.

      ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well that’s the strange thing that no-one really foresaw coming. I mean I thought that if you switched off other, all other forms of getting The Times and Sunday Times digitally that the print sales would go up but it turns out that in fact The Times figures are sliding faster than anybody else in the quality market, which suggests to me that we overlook the degree to which the digital forms of our journalism act as a kind of sort of marketing device for the newspapers. And that if you put a gigantic wall around your content and disappear from the general chatter and conversation about your content then people forget to buy the paper as well. So it’s a kind of double whammy.

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