By Tracey Johnston, London, UK
In June, editors and news business managers head to Bangkok for the World Newspaper Congress. The programme reveals the hot topic on everyone’s mind – business models in the digital age and, specifically, paywalls.
Most of the main US media outlets have already implemented paywalls of one type or another, whether metered (offering a number of articles for free and then charging for further access) or hard no-pay, no-access models.
In the UK, the paywall debate has not been settled as conclusively. News International’s London Times sits behind a hard paywall and the media group – part of News Corporation – is planning to do the same with its tabloid title, The Sun, later this year.
The Financial Times – with a global audience and reputation for quality financial journalism – has a successful metered paywall. Readers can access eight free articles each thirty day period (although they must be registered on FT.com to do so) before having to take out a subscription.
The general news broadsheet, The Telegraph, has also adopted a metered approach. Initially, this applied only to the paper’s international readers but plans are in place to introduce a paywall in the UK, too. Readers will be able to access twenty articles a month before having to pay and the paper points to success in converting nine out of every ten international readers who signed up for a month-long free trial.
Free access is still championed by papers including The Daily Mail and The Guardian, but even these titles will admit to considering their paywall options. The Mail is a mid-market tabloid, the Guardian a broadsheet and politically the two are quite different. What they have in common is a significant international online readership. The Mail is visited by some 46 million people around the world each month and it has been particularly effective in reaching out to US audiences. Similarly, the Guardian estimates that it has 40 million readers worldwide – a third in the UK, a third in the US and a third in the rest of the world.
Why do these titles attract so many readers in the US? Obviously a shared language is on their side, but both titles have thought carefully about their online strategy. The Mail developed a targeted US offer, excels at refreshing its front page in response to reader interest and covers a lot of US celebrity gossip. The Guardian is highly effective in engaging its readers with blogs, active comment threads and tools to encourage citizen journalism, in addition to its high-quality global news provision.
We can guess (but not prove) that these titles may also have benefitted from displacement activity caused by paywalls elsewhere. People who want to read about a breaking news story (and not pay) can easily find and access these sites online. Stories from the Guardian and the Mail rank fairly highly on search engine results through effective SEO, potentially encouraging new and casual readers. Crucially, stories from these titles can easily be shared via social networks like Facebook, Twitter and StumbleUpon – further increasing their reach and influence. And in a virtuous circle, the popularity of stories on these social networks increases their search engine rankings.
The comparison with News International’s Times is stark. Recent data suggests the paper is read by fewer people than any other national general news brand, with a combined print and digital readership of 5.5 million readers. The hard paywall means that the paper’s stories don’t normally rank highly in search engine results and they are rarely shared over social media, further reducing The Times’ reach and influence.
Yet readership, reach and influence are only part of the story. High quality journalism must be paid for. The Mail says online growth is driving advertising revenues, but the business performance of its parent group is bolstered by other interests. For its part, the Guardian acknowledges that it needs to change its business model to address tens of millions of dollars in annual losses but it is not yet ready to raise a paywall, having seen subscriptions for its iPad app drop significantly when charges were introduced. No-one really knows whether this was due to users not wanting to pay for the app, or not needing to pay for the app when they can still get the Guardian’s content online for free.
This balancing act between eyeballs and dollars is being repeated in media outlets across the world. Whatever the debate at the World Newspaper Congress, it is highly unlikely that delegates will agree a paywall panacea.
About Tracey Johnston
Tracey has over 16 years’ experience in international marketingand PR, working with media, technology, professional, healthcare and non-profit organisations. She is based in London and is an avid consumer of global news.