The Times to start charging for content

Today, News International announced that The Times and The Sunday Times will be the first of the UK’s popular broadsheet papers to start charging for content. From June, readers will only be able to access the online content by paying £1 a day or £2 a week. Those subscribing to the paper version will be able to access for free. News International’s two other titles, The Sun and The News of the World, will follow.

It is no secret that newspapers are under pressure. Quality journalism costs money, so hiding content behind a paywall is one way of making money. In the USA, the New York Times charges more frequent readers for access; high end papers such as the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times already charge. But they are a bit different.

The Times are taking quite a gamble here. Many people simply won’t pay for access, but will switch to alternative, currently free services. The Times clearly think that enough people will subscribe that subscription revenue will outweigh lost advertising revenue. In some ways, it’s a last throw of the dice. They need other broadsheets such as The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph to join in fairly soon with their own paywalls, or they risk bleeding significant readership.

And then there’s the BBC. It is funded by a subscription, but that subscription is compulsory if you own any TV receiving equipment in the UK. While its competitors hate this, it gives the BBC independence and a mandate to broadcast worthy but less commercial material. I for one appreciate this. This makes it doubly risky for newspapers to hide their content behind paywalls.

The alternative for newspapers is to extend their brand. The main newspapers in the UK are very well known, powerful brands, and they can use their access to the consumer to make money in other ways, not just allowing others to exploit it through advertising.

Paywalls are the certainly the most straightforward, attractive option for newspapers. ‘We are proud of our journalism and unashamed to say that we believe it has value,’ says Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, describing this as a ‘defining moment for journalism.’ But will people pay for what they can get elsewhere for free (assuming that other broadsheets have journalism of at least equal quality to The Times)? Or could we be watching the long, slow death of a paper as it slowly bleeds that most vital of elements for a media outlet – readers?

10 comments to The Times to start charging for content

  • Mark

    Quite why anyone would choose to pay for a second-rate paper like the Times is beyond me.

    There is a precedent for it in Spain. El País, which is (unlike the Times) very widely recognised as by far the best Spanish paper, tried to do this a few years back. It failed, and now they have returned to a free model with add-on pay services.

  • Alex Lake

    I’m afraid I agree with Mark. Quality Journalism is pretty much dead (although I can’t speak for the higher end stuff). I also support the BBC, but understand that the commercial companies would far rather it wasn’t there so that they could all descend to lowest common denominator.

    Still at least Wine Anorak is still free! ;-)

  • bob parsons/alberta

    Great pity, I always refer to Times-on-Line at the weekend. Guess bye bye.

    Bob Parsons.

  • Andrew Halliwell

    If one day Jamie starts charging us to read his blog, we could always receive a small fee for any comments we add.

  • Steve

    This is an insane decision, as the famous El Pais and NY Newsday examples have shown. There is nothing so unique about any daily paper that makes them a must buy- the only way a paid subscription can work is with specialist titles like the WSJ or FT. The genie is out of the bottle and no one will pay for something they’ve already had for free. I assume Murdoch is just holding on to paper in the hope the Tories will dismember the BBC for his benefit after his stupid rags have given their (notoriously unimportant) electoral opinions. The Grauniad and Telegraph are surely laughing, knowing they could easily kill off a rival brand. (The Telegraph is back in profit already, as you might expect from a rag that unilaterally halved its freelance rates- no wonder it’s so unreadable)
    The gall of charging full price is amazing too. With no distribution costs, no profit margin for retailers- I think twenty pence a day would be plenty and I say that as an erstwhile Times journo. This echo of the rip-off iTunes store shows exactly why downloading has become so popular (and as someone with stuff for sale on iTunes, I would rather give it away for free than see them take such a scandalously large cut)
    Incidentally, what is stopping one subscriber from sharing their login details around, assuming that in a multiplatform age they can’t be tied to a single IP number?

  • Alex Lake

    One can stop subscribers sharing too much by looking at simultaneous logins from various IP addresses. wine-searcher are quite hot on this (too hot in my view – as I access it from home, office and mobile, and they regularly suspect me of foul play!). If one said that only X different IP addresses could access it within a period of H hours, that would do the trick. Perhaps X=4, H=24…

  • Alex Lake

    BTW I like the idea of getting paid to comment!

  • Mark

    “BTW I like the idea of getting paid to comment!”

    God, don’t tempt me into spending even more time on wine sites :-(

  • Jem

    I wonder how many people actually ‘read’ their daily news on line as opposed to via TV/radio. If I want it ‘live’ which is one of their arguments, I use the BBC website as I have paid for it already. All I use the Times website for is to access historic info or to research stuff as I dont keep newspapers.

    Also, I could get ‘free’ access online if I subscribe and get my papers delivered by them. But why should I? That’s doing my local newsagent and his paperboy out of a job.

  • I think this will be a death knell for online publications, there is so much good content out there for free, and they can surely raise the advertising revenue if only they were to get a bit more creative. If anything, the fact that they have to print fewer papers and do not have to distribute them should bring down their costs!

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