Posts Tagged ‘paywalls’

Declan Lynch has form when it comes to spouting nonsense about online journalism. While his column has clearly shown he knows next to nothing about the web (Twitter is little more than “a bunch of people talking about what they had for breakfast”), as a long-time columnist for the Sunday Independent, shouldn’t he know a bit more about the history and economics of newspaper publishing?

Just as newspaper chief executives longingly hark back to a golden age of growing circulations, advertisers jamming the switchboards and profit margins rarely seen outside drug dealing, Lynch hangs his piece on a golden age of quixotic but brilliant editors such as the Observer’s David Astor, who hired disgraced butlers and former lion tamers (he doesn’t mention that he also hired George Orwell and kept the Observer running by using his family fortune).

Lynch “senses echoes” of Aenghus Fanning, the late Sunday Independent editor, in Robert McCrum’s description of Astor. It seems odd that Lynch misses the echoes in Astor eventually selling the Observer to an oil magnate for £1, given that is how much Alexander Lebedev paid Independent News & Media for the Sunday Independent’s sister titles in London.

Lynch has little time for “the noise” of an industry “bamboozling themselves” with “gibberish” as it faces the “challenges of the online age” and suggests the industry just start talking about it. Yet his piece makes no mention of the fairly digestible problems facing newspapers – falling circulation, falling advertising revenues, the impact of 24-hour TV news and the impact of the internet.

Instead, his latest solution (last time it was paywalls) is more comment, less news. In case you think I am oversimplifying:

“Given that most people don’t get their news from the paper any more, the one outstanding service that any paper can provide, is a view — a commentary, a perspective on what has happened.”

First off, it’s a long time since most people got their news from a paper – “most people” get their news from television.

Brushing aside the lack of research on his part, has Lynch been online? The notion that newspapers can hold up commentary as some sort of USP (that’s unique selling proposition, in case you’re bamboozled) is ludicrous. For comment, it is already a very crowded marketplace – Huffington Post, Slate, Salon.com, The Spectator, the New Statesman, the Atlantic, the Economist, to name but a few, not to mention every other newspaper, magazine and an ever-present army of bloggers who will comment on anything. For free.

Lynch also has a pop at those meanies who told him you needed to be a provincial reporter covering boring court cases for years to earn your spurs as a proper journalist. Despite offering evidence for neither, he says:

“So they were wrong about that, and they weren’t right either about the old chestnut that ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’.

The ‘comment is free’ bit, as any reader of The Guardian or watcher of their bizarre TV ads knows, is from an essay by another legendary editor, CP Scott. Had Lynch read it, he would have come across this bit:

“There are people who think you can run a newspaper about as easily as you can poke a fire, and that knowledge, training, and aptitude are superfluous endowments. There have even been experiments on this assumption, and they have not met with success.”

I am confused as to why Lynch thinks that a newspaper could be saved by having a class of professional commenters kept safely behind a paywall, but not by an open-market class of reporters and editors who have served their time learning a trade. And therein lies the rub. Filling a paper with comment is far cheaper than filling it with news. Filling it with free comment is cheaper still and there is plenty of it about. Lynch should be careful what he wishes for.

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Almost all Irish newspapers posted largely predictable slides in their circulation figures yesterday, with sales of the Irish Times falling below the psychologically important 100,000 mark.

Interestingly, however, the Times also posted audited figures for some of its digital editions – 2,023 for its online e-paper and 1,687 for subs on what they call “other platforms, such as Kindle” – I assume that’s e-readers as its iPhone and Android apps are currently free.

Some beermat maths: The Kindle edition costs £14.99 (€17.65) a month, the epaper between €13.33 and about €50 a month depending on how you pay. So that comes to somewhere between about €56,000 and €133,000 a month. That leaves the Times some way to go to make up for the missing 6,393 sales (worth about £325,000 a month on cover price alone).

Although Liam Kavanagh, the MD, said he was happy with the print + apps + epaper total, by far the most interesting thing he said yesterday was again raising the prospect of a paywall,  “particularly in the context of business coverage and niche content”, at irishtimes.com. That may explain the heavy trailing for their revamped daily business supplement.

I do hope the Irish Times isn’t basing its plans on the success of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal’s paywalls. I’ve written here before that I don’t think a general interest newspaper can compete with such specialist publications. Irish newspaper executives are almost certainly also looking at the relative success of the New York Times’s paywall (although plummeting advertising revenues take the gloss off that, too).

In the US, Gannett announced yesterday that it was going to put up a metered-use paywall at 80 titles. The company, which owns 200 titles in the UK, claims the US paywalls could increase revenues by $100 million. I’ll believe it when I see it. In London yesterday, News International announced a new “digital pack”, essentially doubling the online price of the Times of London and the Sunday Times. The Times claims 119,255 digital subscribers, but doesn’t break them down between web-only and print subscribers and doesn’t indicate what kind of reader turnover it suffers.

In short, the titles that use or plan to use paywalls are either so specialised, so over-optimistic or so secretive, it is very difficult to extract any meaningful indication of whether such a strategy would work in a market as small as Ireland’s. My suspicion is that it would not.

Publishers need to be made fully aware that paywalls are no panacea – at the Paywall Strategies conference in London yesterday, the Economist’s Audra Martin said it had doubled the content it produced over the past two years.

“Just putting print online was never going to be enough,” she said. “We had to up the amount and frequency we were publishing.”

Although the potential rewards are great – the Economist’s operating profits rose 6 per cent  in the first half of 2011 – how many publishers would commit to such a large increase in journalistic output while maintaining its quality?

A few additional thoughts on Declan Lynch’s cliched and curmudgeonly paean to the paywall.

Hugh Linehan has a much more polite take than mine in which he pokes another hole in Declan’s argument:

“the biggest problem facing newspapers isn’t declining circulation; it’s declining ad revenues”

His post, “Do journalists understand what’s happening to newspapers?”, also makes me suspect that blogs obey the same rule as print – if a headline asks a question, the answer is no.

For any journalists unsure of how much to charge for news, Julie Starr’s thought experiment is well worth a couple of minutes of your time.

Finally, there’s this:

And let nobody tell you any different (via http://www.jacklail.com)

It was quite entertaining to watch this Sky News interviewer try to tame Jeff Jarvis on the issue of the Times paywalls (the Sky guy looks to be shielding himself with some sort of tablet computer and uses the word “monetarising”, so the odds are stacked against him from the start).

While Jarvis’s language about Rupert Murdoch is a little direct, it is difficult to disagree with his conclusions – the Times is cutting itself off from the rest of the web. Therefore, how will it grow as the web grows? How will it increase its audience and reach online, how will it attract new readers via the new tools the Web is sure to throw up?

The New York Times, which tried a paywall experiment and relented —  partly under pressure from its own columnists unhappy with the lifeblood of links, tweets and comments being tied off — will install a metered model in January, where incoming blog links do not count against a reader’s allotted “free reads”. Given that most of the NYT content I read is via a blog or twitter link, I don’t see how that will raise any extra cash from me,  but at least they’re still in the open.

Malcolm Coles offers up a different problem – the divisions between the paper Times and Sunday Times start looking a lot shakier online:

“Forcing people to subscribe to both sites but keeping them entirely separate, with no cross linking, seems a bit odd.”

The people who work there make an eloquent case for online journalism (although not one of them mentions charging):

We have been here before. When Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal, he was very gung-ho about dropping their paywall, until the economics of the situation were brought home to him.

The irony of the situation is the Times website now looks fantastic. With the relentless focus of an operation that must either work or drop somebody in the shit, it has been redesigned. It is clean, there is hierarchy, the vibrant colours are from the Times-branded palette, the use of pictures is great. The interactive graphics and the Spectrum photo galleries are especially eye-catching.

However, it all raises the question that if this was worth doing as a spring clean before the paywall goes up, why wasn’t there this level of excitement and interest in how the website looked when it was officially chasing unique users and advertising money? The FT reports this morning that fewer than 10% of the Times’s unique 21 million-ish users are likely to pay for the revamped content. Would this level of energy and creativity have brought in enough extra unique users to justify staying in the open?

Journalists these days are being constantly harried to find the business model in what they do. On the Times’s and Sunday Times’s new-look websites, (video here, if you can stand the awful soundtrack and a PaidContent slideshow of pages here), the online editorial people have clearly upped their game, the designers have played a blinder and the infographics team – especially on the excellent eureka graphics – have pulled out all the stops. They are more than pulling their weight in trying to adapt to this experimental business model – but where is the commercial side of the operation? What are they bringing to the table?

It would be a terrible shame if, having come up with an elegant, if  newspaperesque, design (almost to the point of the website being a better designed paper than the Times itself), all of this hard work is seen by fewer readers than any other Fleet Street website. If enough of them pay, of course, it will be hailed a success, but for now it feels like Jarvis was right, and this is a retreat into old ideas rather than a striving for new ones.