Summary:

With just weeks to go before The Times and Sunday Times go behind “paywalls”, know this – many aspects are not yet in place and the strategy…

Gurtej Sandhu

With just weeks to go before The Times and Sunday Times go behind “paywalls”, know this – many aspects are not yet in place and the strategy as a whole looks like more of an evolution than a one-off, June 2010 event.

Sure, the websites will launch next week and will start charging £1 a day or £2 a week from next month; we’ve even learned The Times is testing an iPad app right now. But the payment strategies for print bundling, for charging on such devices and more besides – all apparently a work-in-progress.

Wednesday night, Times digital director Gurtej Sandhu – who came aboard in January, long after Murdoch had already decided the future was paid – was the News International trooper who took on the task of getting out the party line, to a rather sceptical audience during a panel at the Frontline journalists’ club. Here’s what he said…

Device-agnostic payments?

“We’re working toward that. I’ll be honest – as we go forward, we’re going to learn. We’re not in a position where we have that data. We have to work out the models.”

Is it surprising to learn that The Times’ strategy isn’t yet 100 percent fixed? Not necessarily – open-ended experimentation is digital’s required default setting.

Through the discussion, Sandhu – sometimes evasive, perhaps to protect an upcoming official announcement that’s likely to offer more detail – repeated variations of: “We’re at the start of a journey. It’s a starting point. We’re in a position where we have to do something. It’s a journey we want to take.” Sounds as open-ended as it is open-minded – paid being the big certainty.

Free web access for paper subscribers?

“There’s some detail in that that I can’t release at the moment. It will be there on Monday.

“People who have downloaded The Guardian app are now not buying the print edition in a not insignificant number. The intention would be that you buy a subscription and get access in various places. We’ll move move through that process.”

Niche opportunities

Asked why not peel off parts of Times Online for paying, rather than the whole kaboodle, Sandhu said: “As we launch our products in the next few weeks on the devices and websites, your question will be answered very positively.”

He told me: “Although we’re a general newspaper, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t be stronger in various verticals as well. We’re not talking about ‘The Times’, we’re talking about The Times plus more…

“It’s important not to look on it as black-and-white – there are many shades of greys – and we intend to live in many shades of greys as well, that is the element about a rich experience for the City, or about politics and various bits and pieces.

“The Guardian has 38 million unique users – it’s enormously difficult to put your hands around that community; it’s forcing you to be a generalist newspaper. If it’s a smaller number, you can put your hands around it.”

What does this boil down to? Likely a recognition that The Times has multiple audiences, not just one mass. But the one-size paywall we know about so far doesn’t yet suggest audience segmentation. Along with further details next week, I would expect targeted paid apps (say, Sport, Business, Arts or perhaps tighter) to follow the paywall launch, but not necessarily immediately.

About those devices…

We hear The Times aims to deliver three updates a day to an iPad app. “If someone buys the iPad version and doesn’t buy the physical version that’s fine by us. We will build for every single device.

An important part of the app economy, you deliver it. There’s a whole, physical app – we’ll deliver a newspaper at 4am in the morning, it will be the third edition, when you get up at 6am, you will be able to go off to the bus with it. This whole concept of pushing is more natural to us.”

Reader reduction = advertiser freak-out?

“There’s fundamentally higher yield, higher revenue pieces. We’re going to have a sort of reduction, but we don’t see that as a problem.” Likewise, FT.com may be subscription-only, but it still runs ads – targeted at specific reader groups, as well as the self-selection that comes with knowing every reader is an affluent customer, happy to pay for things.

Losing attention?

We don’t believe that we will be out of the conversation.”

Won’t columnists feel the loss of eyeballs? “In front of the paywall at the moment, there’s only decline in that piece. There’s enough columnists who will be happy earning more because there’s subscriptions happening than giving it away for free and there’s a reduction in the amount you pay them.

We have to stop being naive. I appreciate the (anti-paid) position from an academic level – but there’s enough people who do care about journalists getting the story out … the conversations won’t happen when we don’t have those journalists.

But will it work?

There’s no shortage of so-called experts who don’t work for The Times telling The Times what it should do.

It’s a great problem to have,” Sandhu said. “If the problem for a newspaper is that it has to have fantastic content that entices people, let’s have that problem. We are great. If we can’t have confidence in what our people produce…

We did endless research. We did a lot of research. Is it something we think will generate enough revenue for the future? Absolutely.

“No matter what happens in terms of advertising in next year, two or three years – sustainability of an editorial budget of £100 million is not insignificant. The real issue is – how sustainable is it NOT to be in this game?

“Let’s be honest, as a newspaper industry in this country, we are good at what we do.”

On New York Times’ strategy

“I think the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) blinked when they shouldn’t have done (by dropping TimesSelect first time around). 250,000 people wasn’t an insignificant amount, they didn’t really fail. The ad market boomed and suddenly they felt the revenue they could generate from the ad market was far more substantial and they blinked; they got out of something that maybe they shouldn’t have done.”

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