The Times’ Paywall Puzzle: Baffling But Beneficial


The Times reaches 100,000 digital subscribers and I’m still baffled by their online strategy. I ought to be better-placed than many to figure out what they’re up to (declaration: I used to work there). But it’s not easy.

This blog starts from the position that anything which promises a sustainable economic base for journalism is to be encouraged. Dogmatic assertions (“content wants to be free”, “content wants to be expensive”) which aim to shout down empirical experiments are to be discouraged. So any publisher adding to the sum of knowledge about what will or won’t work in charging is contributing. From that perspective, the Times announcement tells us a few things…

  • If your paywall is radical (i.e. around every item of content) and your title is general interest, acquiring subscribers is hard, slow work. Despite improving results with iPad downloads, the overall subscriber acquisition rate is slowing a bit. But a hundred thousand paying followers is not be sniffed at and the experiment is not failing. Even the Guardian’s media editor (not generally favourable to online charging) is prepared to concede that much.

  • Given the prospect of a long haul, why not experiment with relaxing the paywall and playing with a few ideas for tempting more subscribers with some free content? What little information we have is now tending to suggest that the hybrid models are working best, both in attracting new payers in and in minimising the feeling among writers that they’re walled off from the people with whom they’d like to interact. The New York Times is the most important of these experiments, but see also Variety’s move in one of the comments here by Gordon MacMillan of The Wall blog.

  • iPhone and iPad apps are crucial, however poor Apple’s terms of business. They’ve just relaunched the iPhone app with a limited-period free offer (sending it to the top of the app chart as I write) and the iPad application is good-looking and easy to use. Unscientific survey of one: my wife, given an iPad for her birthday, converted from being a longstanding print reader to reading The Times on the tablet in the space of a day. There is no longer any competition in our household for the printed copy.

  • The digital subscription income can’t be offsetting losses caused by the fall in print sales. But subscription income wasn’t ever the heart of the matter. Digital subscriptions are part of a wider strategy to create a sufficiently large body of readers who, one way or another, buy more from the The Times (and Sunday Times) than they ever used to even if they were regular buyers of the printed paper. In the jargon this game is known as “average revenue per user” (or the unlovely ARPU). And the even longer game is having enough data about your users and their preferences to sell to advertisers who want to reach very selectively-targeted audiences. A hundred thousand subscribers is a step on that road, but by no means the whole distance.


George Brock is Professor and Head of Journalism at City University and held several editor posts at The Times. This article was reproduced from his blog with permission.

This article originally appeared in City University.

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