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The Times paywall: Hit or miss?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 17:16 UK time, Monday, 19 July 2010

So how is the great paywall experiment going at the Times?

Times websiteWe now have two early indications (though neither from the newspapers themselves) and they provide conflicting views on the eagerness of people to pay for their online news.

First came the report from the web analytics firm Experian Hitwise that showed that two thirds of the Times and Sunday Times web traffic had melted away after the paywall went up at the beginning of the month.

At first glance, that should have them doing the conga around the Wapping newsroom. After all, the bosses at Times Newspapers had made it clear they full expected at least 90% of the audience to depart, so if they'd persuaded a third of them to pay to stay, that would be deemed a huge success.

But then this afternoon a site called Beehive City had some figures that may have made the champagne go flat at the Times. According to the site, just 15,000 people have signed up to pay for access to the papers' two websites - and don't forget that there was an opening offer of £1 for 30 days.

Beehive City says more than 150,000 registered during the free trial period but it appears that only a small minority then opted to pay. The Times won't confirm these figures, so why should we taken any notice of an obscure website?

Well Beehive City is run by Dan Sabbagh, who until last November was the media editor of the Times, so I think we can assume that his sources are excellent.

So why the great gulf between the two sets of figures?

Well it's probably not as big as it first appears. Hitwise is measuring traffic which will include many people who arrive at the Times home page and then decide to go no further. And even if there are far fewer visitors, having paid their money they are likely to come to the site far more regularly and spend a lot more time there.

The strategists at the Times always thought that there was a better future in serving a small select audience of dedicated paying customers than a mass of passers-by - but 15,000 looks a little too select.

Still, Mr Sabbagh does have one set of figures which he believes will cheer up Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants. He says that 12,500 people have so far paid for The Times app for Apple's iPad, which at £9.99 for 30 days is more expensive than access to the website.

Given the limited number of people who have an iPad that is quite impressive, and the app itself is a very enjoyable way of reading the Times on a small screen. Mind you, if like me they find that downloading the Times each day can crash their device they may not be keen to pay up next month.

It's too early to judge whether the paywall experiment is going to work. But at the moment it looks as though readers are happier to pay for a dedicated application, which can be simply downloaded onto a tablet device than to be bothered with going through the rigmarole of registering on a website and then handing over their credit card details.


  • Comment number 1.

    Has anyone factored in that subscribers to the Times/Sunday Times print edition (Times Plus members) get free access to the websites as part of their memberships?

    That may be seen by the Times marketing department as bad (more free loaders on the website) or good (driving print subscription sales).


  • Comment number 2.

    Paywall or no paywall, it's a Murdoch paper so I wouldn't read it if they paid me.

  • Comment number 3.

    Well judging by the number of emails I receive trying to persuade me to subscribe I would say they are less than happy with their numbers as they stand.

    To be frank i have not missed the The Times or Sunday Times one bit...and suspect that sentiment is pretty common.


  • Comment number 4.

    "Paywall or no paywall, it's a Murdoch paper so I wouldn't read it if they paid me."

    Fine, don't read it, unlike the BBC that we HAVE to pay for regardless of its liberal leftie views that many hate.

    Luckily the Tories are going to slice off the head of the BBC so just like YOU I wouldn't then pay to watch the BBC if you paid me.

  • Comment number 5.

    @gordonsglovepuppet - no one forces you to have a television set.

  • Comment number 6.


    No, but if you want a TV Set to be able to watch Sky Sports or any other non-BBC channel, you are forced to pay money to the BBC.

    The BBC should go commercial and the License Fee should be scrapped. It is unwanted an unneeded.

  • Comment number 7.

    @Addy, and indeed gordonsglovepuppet

    I don't know about you, but the BBC is more impartial then any of the other TV Stations (especially anything owned by that murdock chap).

    And for 38p per day, it's a damn sight cheaper, and better value then anything anyone else is willing to throw out. (Besides advertising driven TV stations that plug on 2 minutes of adverts every 15 minutes)

    I hate adverts almost as much as i hate murdock, and i do not like the idea of a American system where every other channel tells the same story in different lights to make their owners (who may be left or right wing) happy.

  • Comment number 8.

    Well, I find that a certain website, plus occasional glimpses of other broadcasting organisations' websites provides me with all the news I could want.

    As for television - I don't own nor do I want one. Radio on the other hand...

  • Comment number 9.

    I was an avid follower of the school gate blog and its interesting links to other education sites and I am missing that )and some of the magazine bits), but the telegraph and the BBC etc. have all the news for free so at present I'm not paying.
    However, I will be spending more time at the telegraph and less time here if you don't reduce the font sizes on your new web site and give us back the grey margins. The new design may work on some devices, but on my wide screen monitor it is as subtle as my 9 year-olds power points.

  • Comment number 10.

    I was one of those that signed up for an account when it was free - waiting to see the exact price of the paid membership

    However - I cannot justify what they are asking, for the use I make of the site. I was mainly interested in reading their columnists (like Matthew Parris) rather than regular news output

    If I decide to buy an iPad later this year (something I am considering) - and The Times is available here in the States (I know Le Monde is..) I may pay the subscription for that - but not for acess to their website at the prices quoted

  • Comment number 11.

    Lets be honest, this would not be a success for The Star or The Sun. Old copies of the Beano are available across the world and porn is free these days.

  • Comment number 12.

    @ Addy - Comment #8

    YOU don't want and YOU don't need it. The vast majority of other people love it and other nations are envious of it.

  • Comment number 13.

    Interesting point about The Sun. Their iPad app launched about a month ago (£4.99 p/m) it would be interesting to see it's subscriber rates, especially compared to The Times. The Express and The (free) Metro.

    I think a 2/3 drop is not a bad uptake. Unfortunately I think the strategist have it wrong and News isn't one of those sectors that being first to market with a subscription is such a big selling point. The Times needs to differentiate itself. The Wired magazine (albeit maybe a one off, with a huge download) is an example of the type of content they could be offering.

  • Comment number 14.

    If they think 12,500 iPad customers will renew they’re going to be sorely disappointed with the iPad numbers. Current subscribers have not yet renewed their subscription which was extended by a month due to technical difficulties e.g. app crashes etc. Most subscribers (myself included) signed up for a month to try out the iPad edition, based on iTunes App Store ratings more than 50% are less than satisfied.

  • Comment number 15.

    #2 I remember the Sun in the 70's too. I will never buy anything connected with Mr Murdoch or his heritage.

  • Comment number 16.

    'I don't know about you, but the BBC is more impartial then any of the other TV Stations (especially anything owned by that murdock chap).'

    The BBC might be more impartial than other outlets but I would expect total impartiality. Unfortunately I don't get that. Even the occasional bouts of lecturing nanyism, coupled with periodic public displays of cosying up to mainstream media industry sickens me to the core. On several occasions during the last four years the conduct of the BBC has, at times, so closely mirrored the dire output of News International, it has been almost indistinguishable.

    And isn't it Murdoch?

  • Comment number 17.

    4 gordonsglovepuppet wrote:

    ...Fine, don't read it, unlike the BBC that we HAVE to pay for...

    If you don't have a TV you don't pay the licence, as my son chooses. But he still pays for ITV.

    When will folks finally make the connection between the price of goods in the shops and the advertising on Independent Television? Just try NOT paying for the advertising costs on a product. (Er, discount please, I don't watch ITV!)

    The same short sightedness that thinks electric cars are green, clean and carbon free...

  • Comment number 18.

    Does anyone have a business model where they recover the full cost of generating content from their web activity? The newspapers seem to have a particularly poor model - the print editions (barely economic originally) lose circulation to the free websites that carry their reporting.

    This doesn't look like a great recipe for the future - only subsidised web activity (eg BBC) able to provide quality content, while commercial outfits are likely to be limited to product catalogues and editorial that encourages sales?

  • Comment number 19.

    Paying for information is not something I mind doing. But in the day and age of social media, of sharing news and links via the likes of Facebook and Twitter, I don't understand The Times. Personally, I have stopped buying the paper version as I can no longer share interesting articles. The Indy and Guardian are faring well in my household!

  • Comment number 20.

    7. At 8:30pm on 19 Jul 2010, brightengineer

    Reading the rather exciting Editors' Blog currently 'discussing' (running about 50:1 negative, with the positives mostly being "I like it" or "Well you don't have to read it", which leads one to suspect Turing machines have a ways to go yet) the site revamp, or indeed the dot.ApplePR sister blog to this, one suspects that ads and their revenue are not far from any media moguls' minds.

    Even uniquely funded, broadcast-only ones.

  • Comment number 21.

    @18 Google manage pretty well, but they whether or not the companies that pay them for the sponsored results see any return is another matter.

    Other sites that make money are sites that sell tangible products (Amazon, Play, Steam etc.). I suppose you could consider WoW here as well, as Blizzard make millions from the web traffic. I think some of the more targeted sites may because their adverts are far more likely to be aimed well at the audience. For instance, a website selling golf clubs on a golfing website. Adverts in the Times for instance, may reach (or rather did when people were able to view the site freely) a large audience, but for the most part they are irrelevant. Specialist websites also have the advantage that the content they carry is often not included in more mainstream media. Perhaps the Financial Times is the best example, as they have content that is far more specialised than any other news outlet. Other such examples could be MMA (which gets very little press coverage) sites and tech sites.

  • Comment number 22.

    I take my news from a lot of different sites from across the web, the loss of the Times 'free' content has not been noticed other than it becoming a news item of its own.

  • Comment number 23.


    Whether you like or watch the BBC output or not, the licence fee does benefit you (and all other media consumers) by forcing commercial companies to lower their prices to compete.

    If you get rid of the licence fee you will save £12/month but you will lose considerably more than that as all the commercial companies up their prices because their is no 'free' competition.

    Look to the big picture.

  • Comment number 24.

    This board has started to descend into a debate about the License Fee rather than discussing the topic of the Blog. Weird.

    Personally I think this is a major mis-calculation (I'm assuming some proper calculations were done) by The Times. It's my understanding and experience that many users of the web drop in for a story here or there. As a professional web developer, heavy web user and with many on-line savvy friends I don't know anyone who visits one news site and one news site only. Most get to the pages of a news site after seeing the story listed on aggregation pages like Google news. Based on that, to suggest that users pay for a news service just seems crazy. I used to love the Times website and think that the design and layout is great (take note Mr BBC) but as I can't read stories (as an unregistered person) I just go elsewhere to the Telegraph, Independent or Guardian websites. Why pay when the same information (to an extent) is available for free in abundance elsewhere?

    I may be wrong but it seems crazy. If anyone here actually pays for this service (not the free package or the £1 deal) can you let me know what I am missing? Thanks.

  • Comment number 25.

    I don't think really its been thought out that well, there are a couple of loopholes that can be used to get round the system, same as anything but these are glaringly obvious.

    As I've said I work in the subs department for them, and we do get a fair few customers asking about this but not enough really to make much of a impact on sales.

  • Comment number 26.

    I just cancelled my Sky subscription, as my interest in sport no longer balances with my contempt for News Corp and its owner.

    I honestly believe the Murdochs to be a real and nasty threat to British media as we know it. Already our ridiculous tabloids are filled with spite and fear. If the Murdochs have their way this will only get worse.

    I have no desire to see any newspaper bite the dust, but I fervently hope the paywall fails, and a way of making advertising work is found. I hope it eventually dawns on the Murdochs that Britain will not be turned into a mini-America where they can peddle their bile, and that, no matter how many lies they tell to stir up resentment, the British people are actually quite fond of the BBC and don't wish to see it destroyed by power-hungry bigots.

    Can someone tell the Tories, too.

  • Comment number 27.

    Rory, you say Mr Sabbagh info is legit. How can we be sure? from experience, you can only access this info from the inside. I will take this with a pinch of salt. With regards to the subscription figures, it was inevitable that most people would not stick around for longer. I sometimes buy the times because find it better to read the news on paper rather than on the screen. As for the ipad app? well only time will tell

  • Comment number 28.

    Well said omnisvalidus. I think people such as G.Puppet need to be careful what they wish for.

    I think some people won't be happy until Britain has been turned into a bland island with no particular redeeming features. If glove puppet had his way it wouldn't be long before Britain was an entirely privately owned, poorer, pale imitation of America. Middlesbrough town centre to America's West End, so to speak, where the River Island has less stock and the Waterstones more dominated by 'celebrity' biographies.

  • Comment number 29.

    I think there is a future for 'on line' newscasting, but the product must be tailored to what is essentially a new market, possibly beyond the comprehension, ethos or scope of the Murdoch model. It would be interesting to see some figures for take-up of the Financial Times offering - a much more market aware, targeted product.

  • Comment number 30.

    I'd like to see them make the online version available for a day if you brought the print version. Could simply be a case of inputting a couple of words e.g. 19th word page 3 & 3rd word page 17.

  • Comment number 31.

    Truthfully i prefer reading a newspaper than an ipad or computer. With an ipad you have to either have 3g connection (with current rates of monthley payments, is too expensive, depending which operator you're using) or find a wifi hotspot (which are difficult to find especially in the rural area).

  • Comment number 32.

    I've just blogged about this ( if you're in any way interested). I think the Guardian's approach of opening up their platform is the smart way to go. It ups readership which ups advertising revenues. The Times are applying very 20th century thinking to this issue. If you can't sell news, then sell access to your readership - don't cut your readership...


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