More questions than answers surround The Times’ great paywall experiment

News International, the publisher of British newspapers The Times and The Sunday Times, has released figures showing that around 105 000 people have paid to read their respective online editions after erecting a paywall. Around half of these figure are monthly subscribers, the paper’s owners said in a statement.

The experiment is being closely watched around the world as newspapers battle falling sales and advertising increasingly moves online.

But the gain in paid readers comes at a huge cost in general readership with the BBC reporting that the sites have hemorrhaged readers to the tune of about 87% since the paywall was put in place.

Times Online was registering about 21 million unique users a month last year, but the figure has since fallen to around 2.7 million. The drop in readership was not unexpected with Times executives saying at the time that they had expected to lose 90% of their readership as a result of the paywall.

The newspapers now charge one pound a day or two pounds a week to read online after introducing charges in July.

Executives at the newspapers, part of media baron Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation stable, said they were pleased with the figures.

“This reinforces our belief that our journalism is valuable and that customers will respond to the investment, innovation and quality that are hallmarks of our titles and our company,” said James Murdoch, its chairman and chief executive for Europe and Asia.

But some commentators say the figures released do not provide enough information to draw conclusions on whether the experiment has worked or not.

Some commentators gave news of the reported paywall user figures a “thumbs down”, regarding the numbers as “inflated”.

“Inflated, not so much because it includes iPad and Kindle subscribers (somewhere around 30,000) but because it adds in all of those who have enagaged in any sort of transaction since the big experiment started four months ago,” writes Ian Burrell in the Independent. quotes UK media commentator Roy Greenslade as saying the figures released “are just not transparent enough” to provide a clear picture or indication to other news organisations considering paywalls.

“I think, once we delve further into these figures, they will support the view that News Int’s paywall experiment has, as expected, not created a sufficiently lucrative business model,” he says.

paidContent:UK editor Robert Andrews estimates that the Times Newspapers’ online audience is now smaller than its print circulation: “Stripping out occasional readers from search engines and the like in favour of loyal, active customers was exactly the point of the exercise; a massive audience drop-off was not only expected but sought. But to see the newspaper again become the more consumed of the two media options, by such a degree, is poignant.

“The big question, to us on the outside, is whether the reduction in advertising-exposed eyeballs associated with a traffic drop of this scale is, or will, being made up by paying customers.”

– Own reporter with AFP



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