We’ve been tracking the problematic future of journalism here for some time, from our sketch of “The Illustrated Possibilities for Good American Soccer Writing” to comment on the decline in the Guardian’s world football coverage and on the then-impending paywall being put up by Rupert Murdoch around The Times’ of London’s content.
Now the first reports are in on the success of The Times’ paywall experiment, begun on 2 July: and, well, “success” would be stretching it. Dismal failure might be more accurate. The Times has lost 66% of its internet traffic, and has attracted a mere 15,000 paid subscribers (plus 12,500 iPad subscribers). And right now, those subscribers are only paying $2 a month on The Times’ introductory rate; how many will remain when the normal subscription fee of $16 a month kicks-in? The likely level of The Times’ revenue from this (given lost advertising revenue as well) is not going to cut much into their losses running into hundreds of thousands of dollars per day,
I’m not surprised the numbers are low, and it’s doubtful this experiment will see out the year, especially with no other major British newspaper close to following suit.
As we commented months ago, The Times’ problem is the downmarket direction it has gone in under the control of Rupert Murdoch: its content is nothing special. Its football coverage is extensive, but aside from Gabriele Marcotti, is undistinguished. Its middle-of-the-road coverage runs throughout the newspaper. There’s just not much value to it with the alternatives out there for free.
Value in content — in terms of what people will actually pay for — comes from covering a niche with essential information for professionals who cannot easily obtain it elsewhere; that’s why the Wall Street Journal (also owned by Rupert Murdoch) has a successful paywall, and so does the SportsBusiness Daily. If you need that information and analysis to do your job better (or at least, you or your employer thinks you do), you can succeed. Very few people need The Times when they can have the content of The Guardian, The Telegraph or The Independent for free, contrasting as they are in editorial direction.
This is all blindingly obvious. Except, apparently, to Rupert Murdoch. And the search for the future of paid content goes on.