OUCH! TIMES AND SUNDAY TIMES PAY-WALL DRIVES OFF TRAFFIC

Celleno has been on holiday but is now back.

The Times and Sunday Times have seen massive declines in Online readership since News International introduced a pay-wall in June, according to calculations done by the Guardian newspaper. The fall-off may be between 84 and 93 percent – in line with industry predictions before the wall was erected.

The Guardian argues that The Times has now traffic of between 84,800 and 195,700 daily unique users. In February, The Times site had 1.2 million daily unique users, according to ABCe data.

This blog has argued consistently that pay-walls for general daily newspapers won’t work – there are plenty of capable rivals around allowing free access and (The Times isn’t that good). Celleno maintains that pay-walls will only work for niche or specialty publications, especially in the business and sports areas.

Balancing the Free with the Purchased

Maurice Levy, the head of marketing group Publicis, strikes me as making sense when it comes to the newspaper pay-wall debate. Unlike Rupert Murdoch (see earlier posts), Levy is far more nuanced about the balance that will be needed probably between free and paid content — that is if newspapers are going to attract traffic and not put off readers while at the same time making some money.

Speaking to MediaGuardian at the start of the inaugural Abu Dhabi media summit, Levy, stressed that it is “not enough to have a big audience on the internet”, with media companies needing to find a mix between free and paid-for online content to survive in the digital era.

“The future of analogue media will not be supported by advertising alone. They will have to have profitable access to the internet. It’s not enough to have a big audience on the internet,” he said.

“Content has value and that’s something for which I have a strong point of view. I think media giving away their content is not a good service to themselves. It’s a shame, a pity. This content has a lot of value and it has to be valued reasonably,” he said.

The key will be to have some content that is free, but other elements only available for subscribers.

Who Will Be Right — Murdoch or Schmidt?

Rupert Murdoch is continuing his plans to erect a pay-wall around his news websites but Google CEO Eric Schmidt is right, I think, when he says: “In general these models have not worked for general public consumption because there are enough free sources that the marginal value of paying is not justified based on the incremental value of quantity. So my guess is for niche and specialist markets … it will be possible to do it but I think it is unlikely that you will be able to do it for all news.”

As I have written elsewhere on this blog, a pay-wall will only work if the vast majority of major news websites charge for content and that is unlikely. If traffic decreases, then advertising revenue will fall-off. Only the purveyors of premium news in business and sports coverage and other niche areas will be able to charge — although even in sports, sites that have been charging for content are finding great resistance.

Paying For What?

Business Week is planning to experiment with a pay wall for online content. Well, kind of. But it is clear they are hedging their bets and by doing so the magazine is communicating uncertainty. According to MediaWeek  , Business Week content will be available for free but subscribers will get a more “interesting experience”: the subscriber-only view will be print-like in presentation. That is turning the clock back to the late 1990s. In the UK, the now defunct Bonnier newspaper Business Am was the first to introduce an online print presentation, followed a few weeks later in the U.S. by the New York Times. But it wasn’t wildly popular with the online crowd. The reason being? The traditional masqerading as the innovative is a turn-off. Traditional media is still at sea about how to exploit fully digital platforms.

Business Week is hedging bets also by trying what Newsweek and Time have been trying for ages now in different forms: being more forward-leaning with their stories.  But Newsweek and Time just have not been able to pull it off in my mind. They are not good at picking the stories of tomorrow. Business Week also plans to do more on the instant business news front. Heaven knows why — that is a crowded field with Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, the FT and Wall Street Journal. The magazine would be better served — and would better serve readers – by concentrating on what it used to do well: in depth and investigative pieces that draws together politics and business and economics.

One innovation the magazine has just introduced online does have potential. It has created a business social net. The building of community is a good way forward, that is if practitioners, economists, commentators, etc, are brought together exchanging ideas and thoughts. But will that be enough to pay the magazine’s bills?