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The wall goes up

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:08 UK time, Friday, 2 July 2010

So the great experiment which could determine the future of the news industry has begun. Head over to the Times website today and, at first glance, nothing has changed. You can see the front page, with the headline "Husband of 'femme fatale spy' speaks out". But click on the story and you're presented with a page inviting you to pay up.

Screengrab of Times website

There's a special offer at first - you can get access for 30 days for just £1. Thereafter it will be £1 a day or £2 a week. So here's the $64,000 question - how many will choose to pay and what will be deemed a success? We already know that about 60% of an audience of some 21 million online readers have melted away in the month since they were asked to register before getting access to the Times and Sunday Times websites.

That's actually not a bad result - the sheer irritation of having to register could have put a lot more people off. Times executives have made it clear they expect to lose at least 90% of their online readers and probably far more. The truth is that if just 5% of the old online audience stayed - that's about a million people - the champagne corks would be popping at Wapping.

There would be plenty of subscription revenue - £100m a year if all those people were opting for the £2 a week option. What's more, they will be extremely valuable to advertisers because, rather than being random visitors passing through for a couple of pages, they will be identifiable, and no doubt prosperous, readers who've handed over some details about themselves.

But will they come? Having wandered around the Times site - courtesy of a backstage pass - it's not immediately apparent that there's enough of the kind of compelling content that is not available elsewhere. There is the promise of extra goodies for subscribers, but they are certainly not much in evdience. It is a very attractive site, and I would certainly miss being able to read - and share - the work of some of the excellent columnists working on the papers.

My suspicion is that the main problem with this experiment is what I'd call friction. Web users have got used to clicking simply from one page to another without hindrance. Any element of friction - the aggravation of having to pay or just log in - acts as an incentive to head elsewhere in a hurry. I tried an experiment this morning, posting a link on Twitter to an article by the very funny Times columnist Caitlin Moran. Plenty of people clicked on the link - but when they were taken directly to the Times pay-station, they all appear to have left without paying.

The old advertising slogan was "Top People Read The Times", and the newspaper group appears confident that plenty of top people still value its journalism to pay for it online. The rest of the news industry is sceptical - but, to use the oldest journalistic cliche of all, only time will tell.


  • Comment number 1.

    This move has nothing to do with raising revenues. The people at the Times and News International are smart enough to know that there are enough free providers of quality news to mean that subscription levels are likely to be very low indeed. Consumers are not daft, and there's an economic tightening at the moment, why would anyone pay for something when you can get the same elsewhere for free?

    I suspect that the real reason behind this move is strategic. News International may want their subscription service to fail. Because if (when) it does, they will point a very big finger at the BBC and claim that the BBC free and comprehensive web service for news and sport causes severe distortions in the "market" and prevents commercial competitors from making a living. And they might have a point!

  • Comment number 2.

    Let's just say I wish *I* was paid a pound for everyone that posts here saying they won't be paying (despite probably never using the site anyway) and that they hate Murdoch and his empire building (while posting from their iPhone).

    > why would anyone pay for something when you can get
    > the same elsewhere for free?

    News is free and available anywhere but journalism isn't.

    Why do you think this blog is free ;)

  • Comment number 3.


    I don't know about you; but i paid for this blog using my TV License. Which funds the BBC, and are the very people that pay Rory for his work.

    I completely agree with James Rigby (poster No: 1). Rupert is looking at a way to crush the BBC as it's common knowledge that he hates it. Something needs to fail so he can point he weedy little finger at the BBC, and go crying to the anti competitive people at the EU in a bid to try and get rid of it.

    And now the Torys are in power, it may just work out...

  • Comment number 4.

    @James Rigby - you are exactly spot-on with the reason. News International have been Google-bashing and BBC-bashing for a long time because their business model to exploit the Internet is half baked. They want this project to fail for exactly the reasons you've stated.

    I've been known to visit The Guardian, The Mail and The Telegraph websites (usually as the result of a link tweeted by someone), I won't pay to get the stuff if they go hiding behind a paywall - I'll resort to Google to find stuff on another free website or

    What incentive do I have to pay for something that I can find for free elsewhere?

  • Comment number 5.

    @ Aidy - meow :p

    I hope James is wrong because I like the bbc site in general. It does make sense what he's saying tho.

  • Comment number 6.

    As I've mentioned before I work in the times subscriptions department (its a job don't hate me), and I'm not to sure about how this one will turn out. We do get a fair few queries asking about it, but most people don't really seem to fussed. So far in about a month or so, I've only spoken to a handfull of people who actually seem enthusastic about it in anyway.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think calmandhope's comment says it all.

  • Comment number 8.

    I noticed you said that advertisers will be happy: I know that if I paid Murdoch money for his rag (and I won't) I wouldn't want advertising AS WELL on the Internet site...

  • Comment number 9.

    Just popped onto the times site. There was nothing that inspired me to subscribe that I know I can't find on other sites. Not even a free download on Sunday. In 2 minutes I was over to the telegraph to see what they are reporting. Same stuff, no subscription.

  • Comment number 10.

    Advertisers may be happy but only if they can reach you. It depends how you set up you email filters etc and if you accept popups and even if you have a app which blocks ad servers.

  • Comment number 11.

    The Times appears to be pulling a naughty trick.

    I have had an account with them for ages and I am signed up for several of their emails.

    However, I now want to unsubscribe since I will not be able to read the content without paying.

    However, the system no longer recognises my login and says it does not exist. I can no longer manage my account or even delete it.

    Yet, the emails keep coming!

    I am waiting to see how long it is till I get flooded with spam telling me to subscribe to the new site.

    I wonder if the Times will be claiming me as a subscriber in their statistics, even though I can not access my account.

  • Comment number 12.

    Poster #1 has got it wrong.

    There are several outlets already charging for news who do not see the beeb as competition.

    The problem is that things like the Times do not have exclusive content when it comes to the main news.

    Red Tops rely on "exclusives" (often articles no one else would print) to make their offering unique. If, however, your main stories do not involve vicars and topless models, but things like current affairs then by the very nature of the product everybody else will also be reporting on it - the BBC, CNN, NBC, many, many blogs and of course, all the other newspapers. The proof is in the rare exception - the Telegraph's release of expenses details last year. The BBC just followed in the wake of the story - they were not some all powerful group who could steal the Telegraph's thunder.

    The trick Murdoch is trying to pull is to turn back time - he needs people to come to the Times because it IS the Times, not because he has exclusive news.

    So, he needs to make the Times web offering unique and special with columnists and so on that people will pay for, he hopes.

    However, I think the problem is far more deep seated than a problem with the internet. The heavy papers were losing readership all over the place long before the internet raised its head. Circulation figures for what were the broadsheets have been dropping for 30 years. Just look at how long the price wars have been going on.

    Murdoch knows he can never get millions of people to his sites - even if the beeb were removed entirely. He is just hoping to get lots of money out of a relatively small number of people.

    His and his son's tirades against the BBC are completely without foundation and are simply because he wants to blame someone else for the fact that people are getting bored of his organs, and not let his shareholders realise that the real problem is with his product.

  • Comment number 13.

    Where on earth is this figure of 21 million readers coming from?

  • Comment number 14.

    The Times will fail, I'd imagine, by charging for access to their website for the simple reason, as people here have already commented, that there are so many ways of accessing free news and a general news service, as offered by the Times, is not in anyway, 'niche'. Some people have commented that the move is 'strategic' and a way of bringing attention to the BBC in a way that suggests the nation should start paying for it. Well, I disagree; that is the great thing about the BBC, which everybody forgets, it's free, it's our national broadcasting corporation and it's brilliant when you think about it: the website alone is a Godsend and all for nothing (bar the licence fee, which I, for one am happy to pay for the services offered (radio, TV, online).

    Why should anybody pay? I wouldn't pay to read the Times online, I'd rather pay for the print edition and be done with it.

  • Comment number 15.

    14. At 06:55am on 03 Jul 2010, Moggster18 wrote:
    'the great thing about the BBC, which everybody forgets, it's free... bar the licence fee, which I, for one am happy to pay for the services offered (radio, TV, online)....

    Why should anybody pay?

  • Comment number 16.

    Time will tell. If you use a news aggregator such as Google News you can get all shades of reporting, analysis and opinion for any news item.

    The days of buying a specific title for the writings of truly top notch journalists are almost over. When newspapers cut back on sub-editing and proofreading, quality deteriorated to a point that blurred the distinctiveness of each 'broadsheet'. I can't wait for the Sun and NoW to be put behind pay walls. It should make for interesting times in the News International boardroom!

  • Comment number 17.

    I signed up to the free trial. The site looks pleasant but I found it harder to find content other than a few stories presented to me in each section - not as slick as their previous site or other sites like the Guardian. They may as well have uploaded a scan of their paper edition. Another problem is that the site continually crashes the browser on my phone before it has a chance to fully load in, so that would heavily restrict my use. The mobile version of the website doesn't include readers comments or the ability to participate in discussions, although there are hardly any comments on the articles now, which is actually a big loss of content and lessens their offering.

    There are a few pieces of interesting content that maybe worth paying for, but I think their pricing model has been badly devised. I certainly wouldn't pay at the moment even it worked on my phone. I would have personally gone for something more like £1/month or £10/year. This is more reasonable and they'd probably retain more readers. Perhaps they've misinterpreted their stats: 20 million readers? (Sounds more like a unique visits figure.)

    I tend to agree with James Rigby #1, there must be a strategy behind this otherwise they'll end up with dwindling revenues and a site with a few thousand subscribers paying over the odds to be targeted by advertising.

  • Comment number 18.

    The advertisers will be happy? Why? Won't potential subscribers have numbered among previous visitors to the site? This would mean that their audience will have reduced by 60%. The subscription details comprise no more than email and street addresses - not much information on which to base targetted advertising.

    I can't see that the advertisers gain much, or have I missed something?

  • Comment number 19.

    I'm not sure why this is such a big deal when the Financial Times have been charging £75/year for a few years at least.

  • Comment number 20.

    "I'm not sure why this is such a big deal when the Financial Times have been charging £75/year for a few years at least."

    The FT has unique content with a specialised target audience who are willing to pay. The Times has general news, and with competitors offering it for free, there is no reason for people to pay.

    I wonder if part of the thinking is to push people to buy the print edition. If so, it's ill-advised.

  • Comment number 21.

    No 11

    "Yet, the emails keep coming!

    I am waiting to see how long it is till I get flooded with spam telling me to subscribe to the new site."

    If you're getting e-mail, do they have an "unsubscribe" link on the bottom? If not, or if it doesn't work then there's always the "Block Sender" option (may be a slightly different name, depending on your e-mail client).

  • Comment number 22.

    The first poster got it spot on. This is an attempt to show how the BBC is restricting the commercial news sector.

    The problem for News International is that the Internet is too far along now for some big organisation to come along and try and control the content to make money out of it. Like the recording and film media companies they are going to have to learn how to live with the internet rather than control it.

    I hope their attempt at castrating the BBC fails though as I find the BBC web site a great source of news without all the opinionated rubbish that tends to surround artciles in the traditional news outlets. Of course we can look at these blogs if we want opinion rather than news, but at least we know it is opinion and not opinion touted as news.

  • Comment number 23.

    The price will be only part of the problem for the Times.

    Web users do not like the inconvenience of having to "log in" to websites and I believe this added hurdle could in itself affect membership. Entering usernames and passwords becomes even more tedious if you are accessing the website using a mobile phone.

    Most web users will take the easy route - and that is to get there news elsewhere.

  • Comment number 24.

    @19 PhilT
    Are you seriously comparing an international business newspaper, which in itself is a specialist area with only one major competitor with a newspaper that has slowly over the last five years turned itself into yet another tabloid, but this time aimed at the Conservative middle class? You are comparing chalk and cheese. The Times is no more than The Sun's bigger, wordy middle class brother. The FT is a well respected, factually accurate, relatively spinless newspaper about one specific specialist market.

    The only thing that the Times has given us of any merit in the last 5 years is Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver's The Bugle, and that is a satirical podcast whose audience doesn't easily cross over into the newspaper, and is regularly juxtaposed with its parent's editorial angle.

  • Comment number 25.

    Why on earth would you read The Times, let alone pay for it? It's easily the poor man of the "big 4" UK papers (alongside The Telegraph, Independent and Guardian). It's the proxy mouthpiece of Murdoch's empire, and is increasingly full of the pathetic scare stories one has come to expect from the likes of the Mail and Express.

    I did read The Times occasionally online when people linked to it, but I'll be damned if I so much as type the URL in my browser bar ever again. There are still three quality UK broadsheets out there, I suggest that people read them instead.

  • Comment number 26.

    I was one of those who responded to the Tweet that Rory mentions. My reply to him was this...

    I get the 'give us your money to read on here what you can read elsewhere for free' wall.

    To those who suggest it is a strategy to be used against the BBC in the future, I have to say that I never thought of it like that before, but it certainly sounds about right.

  • Comment number 27.

    £2/week, I thought it is good buy, so I followed the subscription procedure and it telling me:-
    Your first payment of £1.00 will be taken on or around: 15/July/2010
    Payment of £8.66 will be taken monthly thereafter from this account.

    You will receive a confirmation email that your Direct Debit has been set up within 3 working days

    Sorry, I not having this misleading advert £2/week which should cost me £4/month demanding twice of he amount £8.66.

    I quit this subscription and deciding Telegraph or Independent. Alternatively I give the time one more chance by end of this month, otherwise it The Time is down into water.

  • Comment number 28.

    Sorry riscy, £2 a week is £104 per year
    a monthly direct debit would be £8.66

  • Comment number 29.

    #27, riscy00 wrote:

    "£2/week which should cost me £4/month period"

    I suggest you return your calendar to the printer, and ask for a refund.

    My months are usually four-and-a-bit weeks, so a little more than £8/month (come to think of it, the very figure of £8.66 which you were quoted!) seems about right...

  • Comment number 30.

    I wish I got £145 a year for every person who says the BBC is "free".

    My attitude to the Times experiment is - obviously and unavoidably - skewed by the existence of the license fee. if I want to own a TV, I'm legally obliged to fund the BBC's websites as well, so I might as well use them. Therefore any commercial alternative seems like a double expense and has a large hurdle to climb over to be not just better than the BBC but so much better that I'm happy to pay the subscription *in addition* to the license fee for the BBC's service that I might not even be using.

    And as Stephen Fry (of all people) recently pointed out, all the best TV in the world is made in the US. He might have also noted that it is made by competing commercial companies in a marketplace undistorted by any license fee, but he didn't.

  • Comment number 31.

    Is it really better for the paper and its journalists that The Times Web site ends up with paying readership of less than a million after having enjoyed more than 20 million visitors to their site? Murdoch's suspected conspiracy against BBC and other competitors, if true, comes from a twisted mind of an old man and is likely to fail. Actually The Times' old site was much better. Still, it is hard to believe that the advertisers would welcome a select small audience instead of addressing many millions. The Times readership was quality readership anyway.

  • Comment number 32.

    Good Day,
    Well here we are with conspiracy theory's abounding.
    Lets be clear and honest Murdoch wants to control the media all of it so he and his can put across there view point and you and I will only ever see there view point.
    I dont read Murdoch titles I haven't since the seventies and I will not do so ever again.
    I sincerely hope this move completely fails and Murdoch is forced to re-open the Times site as a free news site.
    It is time we the public gave him and his a swift "Gibb's" across the back of the head and told him the customer is the ruler of his fortune and not him.

    Yes I dislikely him and his business model so please read this knowing my bias.

  • Comment number 33.

    #2 "News is free and available anywhere but journalism isn't."

    News may well be free, but a large proportion of journalism is worthless.

  • Comment number 34.

    Assuming what many are predicting about Murdoch's motives are correct the BBC could take action to pre-empt it.

    For example, it would be quite easy to tie-in the use of the BBC website with the ownership of a licence, especially as I had to register anyhow to post this comment. Maybe could add the facility to create a list of bbc usernames that are associated with your licence number.

    This of course could lead to the option of a partial opt-out of all elements of the BBC that could have access controlled.

    Personally I wouldn't opt-out as I think £12.12 a month for a service without adverts is brilliant value.

  • Comment number 35.

    A portion of the problem is that you are presumably intended to pay for it, because what is in it, matters - but if what is in it, starts mattering to only a million, or so, other people in the entire world, then it is questionable how much it will actually matter - and therefore, how much it is worth paying for.

    Journalists work for money, but you can earn money in lots of much easier ways, and so part of their motivation is that they want, what they write, to be read. No one writes good work if they think no one will read it, and if a writer feels that they are casting their words out into the empty void, then they are liable to seek work elsewhere.

    This eventually dilutes the quality of what remains, of course, and I rather suspect that The Times will end up becoming "all Julie Burchill and no Simon Barnes", because talent can move, while sludge stays put.

  • Comment number 36.

    3. At 4:33pm on 02 Jul 2010, brightengineer wrote:

    I don't know about you; but i paid for this blog using my TV License. Which funds the BBC, and are the very people that pay Rory for his work.

    Not me. I'm not paying for any of the BBCs services.

  • Comment number 37.

    Pay for the Times and Sundays Times - uncle Rupert must be smoking something. Looks like the online versions will fall into the abyss.

  • Comment number 38.

    @11 I have the same problems. I registered with the Times ages ago (for the driven section) and know i can't login. I still get emails though. I buy papers know and again but i get my news online for free:)


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