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?