news:rewired – We need to talk about paywalls

Paywalls.

Go on, say it. Let the word roll around your tongue.

Pay. Walls.

. . . They’re evil, right?

Keeping the public out, killing openness, dooming your general-interest online publication to irrelevance. Oh, the New York Times tried it in the 90’s, and they came grovelling back. Any generalist website that goes this way is doomed. Especially those organizations formerly known as newspapers.

There’s a lot of this sort of rhetoric around. Some of it comes from commentators that I know and respect very much. But the other camp – the pro-paywall people – they’re not so loud about their thoughts on the matter. (Maybe it’s because they’re too busy making money.) So yesterday at news:rewired, I jumped on the chance to hear about paywalls from people who believe in them, and run sites that use them.

Of the three presenters, I was specially interested in what Tom Whitwell, the assistant editor of the Times, had to say. The Times isn’t a specialist publication – it’s one of the grand old houses of English-language journalism, and they’re adapting to the 21st century with paywalls, a strategy that Tom himself has said will deter 90% of their readership. I have to admit, for a long time I couldn’t understand what they were thinking.

Now I know. And I have to admit, the vision makes sense, and it’s quite compelling.

I still don’t know if it will work. But I think that if it goes the way Tom described yesterday, the Times site will be a very compelling place.

Here are my notes from the session – I tried to capture all I could of Tom’s presentation. This isn’t an attempt at recording the whole presentation verbatim – it’s my best recollection based on live notes.

We’re in the middle of turning a free-to-air website into a paid-for website.

It’s an editorial and creative challenge – in addition to the technical challenge.

18 months ago, we came to a fork in the road – either continuing to grow as free site, or switch to paid.

We were getting 22 million uniques a month then.

How to expand? Financially, we needed 30-40 million per month.

How were other people doing it? There were a few strategies out there.

Piling on new versions of stories to stay on top of Google? Continually publishing more, slightly ‘improved’ versions of the same story to float up in the search results?

Or we could write a lot of stuff about celebrity and lowest-common-denominator news to get a lot of clicks – publish pictures of starlets getting out of taxi cabs and having underwear malfunctions.

Or we could try enormously intrusive advertising. Pop-unders, pop-overs, etc.

We were skeptical of all these, but the other path was terrifying. Charging the audience.

But paying makes for a real relationship with the audience – not just drive-by audience. We get lots of hits from ‘drive-bys’ – people who come in for one link and bounce off, from around the world.

For a pay site, it’s different. A pay site genuinely has the reader at its heart. We’re not interested in optimising the site for ads, we’re interested in optimising for reader experience.

Now, we can bring the journalists much closer to the readers.

This is the point that I really found interesting. It’s something that I had occasion to talk about with Tom previously, and the nature of the reader community in a paid site is something he highlighted then, too. I believe community is all-important – we are the medium, after all. If all the users have paid to access the community, then that has the potential to generate some really interesting community dynamics. Potentially quite good ones. No trolling or spamming, for instance. That’s quite interesting.

Our new site launched 3 weeks ago. Now if you want to read it you have to register, and soon the paywall will come down. Critical reaction to the design has been positive. The registration figures are very encouraging (expectant pause in the room) I will not go into detail.

The site feels very alive.  It’s a very exciting time.

(QUESTIONS)

Q: What about Times Select? It failed. Aren’t you worried the same will happen to you?

The idea that Times Select was a failure is ridiculous. They had 250,000 paying subscribers. They cancelled it at the peak of an advertising boom. Now, if you offered them the same 250k back, they’d bite your hand off for it.

We’re doing this to safeguard the future of our journalism. To keep the editorial team viable. I’m not sharing figures on how many subscribers they’d need to support current team.

The Guardian keeps publishing these reports: “95% of people won’t pay for content online.” A couple of months later, it’s 90% of people won’t pay for content online. Little later, it’s “85% won’t pay.” Eventually they’ll stop publishing those stories.

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