The discussions over The Times moving behind a paywall keep rumbling on. Making no apologies for this being a post of links about it to judge reaction beyond my own opinions on it which were put in the previous post:
Tom Whitwell, head of online at the paper, says that the move behind the paywall is a “leap in the dark” but that it’ll work. I’m really not so sure. The big takeaway from this is that those of us who caved in and signed up for the free trial (‘Exclusive previewers’ – a phrase I made fun of in the last blog post on the subject) are going to be cut off in the next couple of weeks.
Flying in the face of Whitwell’s optimism is ArsTechnica, who have a brilliantly blunt headline: ‘UK paper requires free Web accounts; traffic plunges’ (now that’s a superb use of a semicolon). They’ve lost almost half of their pre-wall traffic just by setting up a need to register – even though it’s still currently free. Once the free readers are cut off that’ll surely drop even more.
The thing that The Times are seemingly banking on is that people can be reconditioned to pay for news online, and they seem to be expecting that it’s going to take time. But there’s a precedent in The New York Times hiding content behind a paywall, and before that restricting some content to registered free users; they turned their back on that and reverted to free-for-all access. There’s also the fact that people can find their news from dozens of other sources for zilch – and we’re not talking about shoddy bloggers or even scuzzy tabloids: you’ve got The Guardian, The Independent and The Telegraph sites right there giving you the same standard of news and features for absolutely free (even if there might be a few more spelling errors on The Guardian site.
Ultimately, The Times are gambling on the personalities of their comment writers. Brand loyalty only really exists when you buy a physical paper, because you’ve invested time and money into it. You’ve walked to the local shop, picked it up, thumbed it and brought it home and it’s sitting on your coffee table. It becomes an extension of you both metaphorically and physically when you hold it to read it. On the internet, it’s just pixels on a screen – and when you start charging for those pixels, you’ll find that people rapidly realise they can get pretty much the same configuration of pixels on their screen for absolutely free.