News International has confirmed that it is to start charging visitors to access both The Times and Sunday Times newspaper content online from June. This heralds the emergence of the much talked about Murdoch Paywall which News International owner Rupert Murdoch has long argued is essential in order to make news economically viable in the online age.
According to the BBC the existing combined Times Online website will split to form distinct digital brands and businesses from May, with access for the two sites costing £1 per day or £2 for a week paid in advance although a free trial period is expected to also be available to registered users.
This will mark the first time that a major UK newspaper has moved to a fully paid for content digital model. According to rival newspaper The Guardian which itself took the decision to charge for an iPhone newspaper application when others were all free (a successful decision as it so happens) if only 5 percent of current daily Times Online users convert to the new paywall model it would bring in around £1.83m per month assuming everyone was purchasing a daily pass. Obviously this figure would be much lower if people opted, as seems likely given the price difference, for the weekly pass instead.
I have been a jobbing journalist for the last twenty years, and have worked for major newspapers both online and off during that time, including both The Times and Sunday Times. Of course I appreciate that publishers need to make a profit, however as I have said before on these very pages, market forces will prevail and if the Murdoch news content is really worth it then people will indeed pay and the Murdoch media empire will not crumble and die. However, I am not convinced that Murdoch really understands the reality of new media. The idea that you will get more readers, and make more money, by ring fencing your content and making it available only to those who pay, while at the same time preventing headline link aggregators such as NewsNow and one has to assume Google News from being able to bring potential subscribers to your business is sheer madness. News International is currently arguing that the subscription model is a defining moment for journalism and online news, and that those who say it won't work are forgetting that a few years ago people said the music business would die as people were downloading music for free.
What is being missed here, I suspect, is that music was being downloaded for free illegally while news is not. Unless either everyone providing news content online starts charging for it, or the news content being provided by The Times is so compelling that everyone is prepared to pay to read it, surely the paywall is doomed to failure?
My prediction is that news will remain free, as it should be, and those charging for it online will be moved to the periphery of the online journalism world. After all, if you can search for a news headline at Google and find a hundred different articles reporting it for free why would anyone really want to pay for either the 1st or 101st version? The future is less about paywalls and more about news blogging and a new found freedom of the online press in every sense. Let's hope that The Times and Sunday Times will only be producing 100 percent original content, with exclusive breaking stories, and not referencing content from those free online sources...
So let's finish on a question: will you pay for The Times online?