Saturday, July 03, 2010

To pay or not?

This is my 100th post on the Questing Vole, so thank you if you have read some of the preceding 99, especially if you left a comment. They are all appreciated.

This blog is, of course, free and will remain so, unlike my cricket blog on the Times website, which yesterday slipped behind the Great Murdoch Paywall.

The issue of whether The Times should charge its online readers has attracted a lot of comment, generally unfavourable ones from those who think that all content on the internet should be free to read.

Most of these pooh-poohers seem to accept paying for newspapers in hard form. The Times put up a paywall around its printed newspaper back in 1785 and it still seems to be a working model at £1 a day (those who point at falling sales over the past decade ignore that circulation is double what it was 30 years ago). They also accept paying to watch movies or sport on TV through satellite subscriptions at up to £50 a month.

Why, then, is the idea of paying £2 a week for an enormous amount of online content anathema? Well, the main reasons are that it was always free before and you will be able to continue reading news elsewhere without paying.

Except I don't buy this. For a start, free does not mean good. Look at Metro or the Evening Standard: free newspapers but also unreadable tosh, fine to flick through for five minutes on the Tube but not something I would think worth spending money on.

Yes, there are lots of really good free websites out there - many not run by corporations but by individual bloggers - but they are only good because people spend a lot of time working on them. Those people should be paid. The reason I don't blog as often as I should here is because often I am too busy writing for money, but the Vole is a one-man operation. If you have a large team of people producing a hundred stories a day, you need to pay them and they would deserve paying by what they produce.

Also, I also don't think people buy newspapers for news any more. They already know what the stories are from TV, radio and the web, but they read The Times for the context and illumination that my colleagues place on the news. People may still not think it worth paying to read these people online, but they need to acknowledge that they are not coming to find news.

The thing that opponents of online charging do not understand is that, unlike private bloggers who crave readers for their personal satisfaction (I certainly do), big media organisations do not care if a large proportion of the online audience stay away. They just want enough people to read - and to pay - to cover the cost of producing a first-rate service.

In very broad terms (ignoring reductions for subscriptions and giveaways), The Times only needs to attract about a million paying readers to its website each week to double its income. It gets about 20 million unique readers a month, so it can afford to let an awful lot of them go.

And while the advertising revenue may drop at first because of the 95% reduction in potential readers, the paper's management can offer in return a better analysis of who the readers that remain are. They can monitor what stories they read and advertising can be targeted accordingly. In the long term, advertisers will see the benefit of knowing more about their audience.

That is not to say that I agree fully with The Times's online charging model. It seems strange that there is not an option to pay monthly or quarterly or annually. The constant pay-and-sign-in model will irritate many and irritation, more than cost, is a good reason to avoid things on the internet.

I would also like people to be charged by their time on the site rather than a flat fee for access. I'm not sure that our web strategists understand that people often only read small sections of a big website. Many of my cricket blog readers will only read the cricket section of our site - not even branching out into the general sport site. Some people will just visit to read a particular columnist or to get news from one sector where we have good analysts.

These people may not think that £2 a week is good value. But they might be happy to be charged 10p (or even less) a click and by retaining more readers that way, the paper would make more money. Technologically it should be very simple (look at how iTunes works). I'm sure our wonks must have looked at it, but clearly they feel that they "whole product" approach is the way they want to go.

Good luck to them, but farewell to those who used to read The Times online and won't any longer. We appreciate your support over the years. If you want some free reading matter, can I suggest the Questing Vole...?


vipul barad said...

When i was looking for your blog on TIMES website... I found that Times no longer available free of cost online. This is surprising and disappointing development for all those who want to expend their Horizon of knowledge. Charging readers is the not the only way to earn money, It can be done via advertisements on the website.

I don't think people will willing to pay for reading news paper online because they already pay big amount for internet service to their service provider. Also readers have many options to access news free of cost online. TIMES going to loose so many online readers, including me. Lol.

Charis Croft said...

This is a very interesting debate, I think, and one where the 'best' answer appears unresolved.

Intellectually, I don't see why I should get something for free that people have worked hard to produce. I don't expect it in almost any other walk of life. Even apparently free things come with advertising etc.

I have also been much impressed with an argument that people value things they pay for more - so getting things for free changes our mindset to not value information, and therefore distorts our values, meaning we are less respectful and abuse our privileges more. I'm not expressing it very well, but that's the gist.

Having said that, I probably won't go to the Times now there's a paywall. I can get as good, more or less, coverage elsewhere. For free. So why wouldn't I? That, I think is a downside more of being a pioneer than the intrinsic model. I can't see the complete freeness of the internet lasting forever.

What does need to be addressed though, is the technical issues. Like Patrick, I think a 'per page' or article model would work better - I know I rarely stray from the cricket pages! Also any such model has to allow for access from different sources. For example, I read online papers in my work lunch break, so the paywall has to recognise me there as well as at home (and not fall foul of any 'blocking' systems such as most employers now use). It probably also needs to be accessible from smartphones. And I access a lot of news via RSS feeds of the headlines, so if something looks interesting I'll click through to the main article. Currently the feeds don't work through the paywall, so I never see the headlines, so I don't ever feel an urge to go to the website. That combined with hassle (and you're right, hassle is at least as big an incentive not to do something as cost!) and payment, means I won't use the Times. And I won't miss it. Or at least, know what I'm missing. And that is probably my loss as well as the Times'.

vipul barad said...

Agree with Charis on some points. The word ''hassle'' is important point. In todays fast moving world... who will like to spend their time and fill info every time whenever they want to read news paper online?

Paddy said...

Hi Vipul, Good point about people already paying for ISP, although they pay a TV licence (in this country) and then seem prepared to pay extra on top for sports subscriptions, so the principle of top-ups is already accepted.

As you say, though, will they pay for something they think is the same elsewhere? Personally, I think newspaper websites' USP is not the news but the context and analysis, but is £2 a week worth it for that. Hmm, we shall see.

I understand that no one here at the Times is allowed to know what viewing figures have been since we went behind the paywall...

Paddy said...

Hi Charis, I suspect that other newspapers are quite keen for the Times to prove a success with this so that they can follow suit. Let's face it, this will not dent the Murdoch empire or close the print version of the Times if people don't choose to pay, but if they do then the Telegraph, Guardian etc will presumably want to follow suit.

It's a bit like with the move to computerisation in producing a print paper and cutting out the unions in the 1980s. Murdoch led the way, the other papers criticised him and then they all followed him.

Whatever people think about Murdoch, he tends to make good business decisions.

I think that he (or his online wonks) do not understand that people do not want to buy the whole product online, as you say, and that a reduced rate for those who only read one section is essential (like you can get a reduced rate on your satellite TV subscription if you only want to watch documentaries or don't want the sports channels)

The hassle issue is a crucial one. If you register for the Times, you will get a password and be able to see the website on all computers, so you would not need to pay extra for home and work use. But they have to make logging in and staying logged in as low-effort for the reader as possible