Football and The Times’ Pay Wall Experiment

From next month, you will not be able to read The Times (of London, as they say here in the US of A) or Sunday Times newspaper websites without paying a subscription fee of £2 a week or £1 a day. In fact, you won’t even be able to stumble on links to their content via Google, as Paid Content reports:

That means the sites – which are fine, focused products – could be passing up their greatest customer acquisition opportunity: their content itself. Non-members who reach a story page are greeted by a Times+ sign-up and login overlay, obscuring the article; there’s no taster, no excerpt and no way that anyone will find those articles via search sites.

It’s all a more conservative strategy than News Corp stablemate WSJ.com, but: “When we showed it to people, that was the model they preferred,” said Times executive editor Danny Finkelstein. “We’re completely unashamed about this. We’re trying to get people to pay for the journalism and we wanted to do it in a very simple way.”

The Times’ new site, available for a limited time as a free preview of the coming service, is fairly impressive design-wise, with a sophisticated look that aims to mirror the style of the print edition. It works well.

But people won’t pay for a newspaper site because it looks nice (or not). They pay for content, particularly for sophisticated niche content (see the Financial Times).

Over the past two decades, more and more of The Times’ content has been about football: as the sport has become ever more a part of British culture regardless of class, so has a snotty Sunday Times that condemned football as “a slum sport played in slum stadiums and increasingly watched by slum people who deter decent folk from turning up” made it a central part of its daily coverage.

The Times football section

The problem is, there isn’t anything compelling about The Times’ football coverage that would make me want to pay for it when I have free alternatives that provide pretty much the same service. The Guardian has promised to remain free, and it would be absurd for me to pay to read inferior coverage at The Times.

This problem for The Times is brilliantly dissected by John Gapper in the Financial Times, as he analyses the path the two Times newspapers have taken since they were purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1981, which has steered them away from the path of elite appeal that might have given their content the scarcity value worth it for a certain demographic to pay for, instead going mass market:

Newspapers have found that chasing page views in the hope that advertising will save them is hopeless. Premium news and information providers either have to have another source of revenue – like the BBC, Bloomberg and Reuters – or a solid subscriber base.

The future of general online news is in doubt. But if any titles are to survive, they will have to be more like The Times Mr Murdoch bought in 1981 than the title he publishes today – more focused, deeper, with rarer data and information.

They will, in short, have to be elite – a quality that Mr Murdoch has always hated. The alternative is to keep rushing into a world of low-cost content aggregation and “curation”, a fight that will be impossible to win against such low-cost upstarts such as The Huffington Post.

When it comes to its football coverage, the Guardian is much closer to providing something “more focused, deeper, with rarer data and information” than The Times is, from its chalkboards to its podcast to the analysis of Jonathan Wilson or the humour and insight of Sid Lowe. If all that cost me $10 a month, well, I might just pay for it. But £2 a week or £1 a day for The Times’ coverage with the Fink Tank and their one good columnist, Gabrielle Marcotti, along with the same news stories about the England team I can read in a dozen other places? No thanks. And that essentially mirrors the larger problem of the paper’s unexceptional content as a whole.

Perhaps not coincidentally, The Times itself has two recent articles on the possibilities of success for paid content: on the iPad’s launch in Britain, and on the launch of a paid version of El Mundo newspaper online in Spain. The latter, the Times reports, has attracted 10,000 subscribers at €14.99 per month per month or €0.60 per day (it’s unclear if that’s 10,000 people who have paid €14.99 or 10,000 people who have at some point paid €0.60 for one day’s access, a rather crucial distinction monetarily).

But in the piece on the iPad, there’s a killer quote that sums up the challenge despite the shiny new devices like the iPad: “It’s interesting, it’s pretty, it has lots of advantages for news,” Benedict Evans, from Enders Analysis, said. “But 10 million pay for a daily newspaper in the UK. They spend roughly £30 a month each. There will not be 10 million people spending £30 a month on the iPad any time soon.”

As a whole, The Times’ paywall seems a bit of a reach, and a slightly desperate move that’s doomed to failure. It’s a shame I won’t be able to read Gabrielle Marcotti’s thoughts on the final stages of the World Cup, but I’m pretty sure Sport Is A TV Show will have something more interesting for me to read anyway.

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