The wall goes up
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.
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.