If The Times of London had only lost two thirds of its audience since putting up its paywall, as The Guardian reports, that would actually be a pretty good result. Unfortunately, it's much worse than that.
The Hitwise numbers quoted in the Guardian story include readers who landed on the Times' home page and went away again because there was nothing for them to read. An introductory offer of a £1 payment for a week might have lured a few in the door (the Times insists average duration of visits has stayed relatively consistent) but think about your own web browsing: do you stop, register, pay? Or just move on to a website where there's something to read?
BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow said last week that the Times and Sunday Times new paysites "are apparently ghost-towns, unpeopled even by the print subscribers who get free access but can't be arsed to log in (and never follow links to Times stories, since chances are anyone in a position to make such a link doesn't have an account for the site)."
Doctorow was quoting a story on Newser.com by Michael Wolff, who wrote:
The wider implications of this emptiness are only just starting to become clear. A Murdoch and Fleet Street veteran with whom I’ve been corresponding about the paywall reported to me on his recent conversation with an A-list entertainment publicist: “What was really interesting to me was that this person volunteered a blinding realization. ‘Why would I get any of my clients to talk to the Times or the Sunday Times if they are behind a paywall? Who can see it? I can't even share a link and they aren't on search. It’s as though their writers don't exist anymore.’”
The web is designed to be full of websites that anyone can link to; that's the key feature of the whole thing. And it's the practical effect of a loss of this great currency that's the issue here. It's conceivable that Murdoch could achieve a small subscriber base that would deliver about as much revenue as the Times was making from online advertising – a much longer shot that he'd be able to deal with the other ramifications of disappearing from the public internet. Especially given that the poor bastards in his sales department are still expected to try and sell advertising on the site. It just doesn't make sense.
David Mitchell's recent column in The Guardian arguing for paying for news as a moral duty has been widely quoted and linked – you may notice an irony right there – but this is to miss the point. Joanne Black went further down the same road in her Listener column, declaring of The Times:
I will subscribe, because it would never occur to me to walk out of a dairy with a New Zealand Herald without paying for it, any more than I'd leave with a block of butter without paying.
Call me a nitpicker, but declining to buy and use a product is not actually the same thing as stealing. (Black also doesn't say whether she paid for access to the Herald's "premium content" when she had the chance several years ago.) It seems worth noting that Black's column has not been widely quoted – or at all – because you won't be able to read it online until Saturday, a couple of weeks after its publication. Welcome to the conversation, Listener.
Again: the technical protocols of the web, and the internet below it, were designed to foster currency. That's why it grew as explosively as it did. And that's how it changed the way we consume media. It's all very well for Black to declare that £2 a week is nothing – but how many editorial sites do you land on in a week? Ten? 20? 100? How many of us can really afford upwards of $60 a week to read the papers? And who would surrender the choice and stick with one paper?
Paid online subscriptions continue to work in the places where they have always worked: the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times' graduated model – and, it seems, the National Business Review's subscriber service. Murdoch's big problem with The Times may be that it's just not good enough these days to command a price. It also seems to me that charging just a little is the worst of all options. You'll get all the downside and none of the cream. You're better off charging handsomely and delivering handsomely in return.
There really only seem to be two ways out. One is that the advertising industry finally gets its act together and finds a way of addressing high-value international audiences. Nearly all the people clicking through to Mitchell's Guardian column will be part of desirable demographics. Last time I looked, the only non-house display ad on the page was some scammy cost-per-click nonsense that sensible readers would ignore.
The other option arrives in New Zealand on Friday, when the iPad goes on sale. Devices with content present a different proposition to websites. iPad apps (and the HTML 5-based lookalikes that will follow on other devices) are made for consumption, rather than sheer currency. Ironically, The Times' iPad app is reckoned to be awful and unstable. And the Conde Nast magazine apps – to which I'd happily consider switching my print New Yorker and Vanity Fair subscriptions – seem to be even worse. Wired magazine on the iPad is, unfathomably, a 500MB download.
There is a right way to do this, and I gather that North & South's app – currently in iTunes Store approval limbo – is done right. M2 has one too. The Listener, for which this format might have been made, seems to be going nowhere. I'll be buying an iPad on Friday (also my birthday!) and I'm looking forward to it. I'll also be willing to pay for content.
Footnotes: I can't quote Michael Wolff without noting that he's a content-stealing arsehole whose website embodies the worst of big free media. Also, you know who's doing really well out of the existing ad-funded model? The Daily Mail. I can see why. The content may be trite and offensive; the site's well sticky.
Hey, I didn't mean to write that much. But seeing as you've read this fair, how about you come along to tomorrow's Media7 recording? We're looking at the whole "party central" debacle with a killer panel: token Wellingtonian (but for how much longer?) Sean Plunket, Simon Wilson, John Dybvig and Pam Corkery. It will get noisy. If you'd like to join us, we’d need you at the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ between 5pm and 5.30pm tomorrow (it's a gate leading to a courtyard). It would help if you clicked "Reply" to let me know you're coming.