Would you pay to read The Times online?

26 Mar

It's now official. The Times and The Sunday Times will soon have separate websites and will charge people for access. News International, the newspapers’ parent company, has announced that people will be offered a day’s use for £1, or £2 for a week’s subscription.

For me this is one of the most important announcements in a very long time. As a journalist who believes in the value of his craft I have long been fed up of the way that it's just become 'normal' for anything online to be free. Why should that be? I write a feature for a newspaper and, without my say-so, it appears in the online edition too - for no additional payment. As a reader I've become fed up too with the amount of crap that is clogging up the net - words used just to target search engines rather than to deliver useful information to readers. Just this week I was offered between £15 and £25 to write 500-word pages for a fairly well-known travel website about flights and hotels in particular destinations. This is the sum-zero of this game. Content that's of little real use to anyone aimed in the main at getting people to land on a page - even if they click straight off again, just to earn ad revenue. And the people who write it being paid a pittance to do it. Something has to change.

More interesting still, it's looking increasingly likely that Murdoch (who is of course the real player behind all this as the Chairman of News International) will bar all his content from Google and conversely do a deal to make it available on Microsoft's competing search engine Bing. Google - no longer the search engine that covers everything? Wow... that is a serious cat amongst the pigeons and something only a huge player like News International would be able to consider.

So, I applaud the intent. But will it work?

1) People hate paywalls. Ironically I wanted to link to a piece on the FT that I found on Google about this - but I hit a 'register to read this' wall. So I went elsewhere to find something. I just struggle to see how they will get the casual browser to convert to  becoming a paid-up subscriber. Hitting a paywall will not make me want to subscribe.

2) Differentiation is all important. News is totally commoditised. Sorry, but I just don't see people paying for news. If I can't read it on Times Online I will read it on the Guardian or the Independent or literally hundreds of other sites. (There is a possibility of course that everyone will follow News International's lead. I wonder if NI management have been having quiet chats off the record with their opposites at other major publishers?But even then there's the BBC. ) Features of course are a completely different err, story. I had a fascinating chat with someone who works at News International last week about the way that NI plans to have The Sunday Times' online content focussed on Features - print, images, video and the Times on News. I can see a payment model working for the ST's more feature-orientated approach because this content will be genuinely unique.

3) What will that mean for writers? Well, again, according to my contact at NI there are serious budgets available for pure online content. Our conversation was all about the importance of video, and I can see how exploiting the technical advantages of web over print seems the logical way to add value here. So, maybe, just maybe, it will be possible for journalists to make a living writing/creating content for the web? If that's the case what will that mean for the travel writer? Now it's not just notepad and SLR to carry around, you'll need a video camera, tripod and mic too and the requisite skills to use this new kit.

4) What will that mean for advertising? This is the one that really fascinates me. I watched the video clip on that link above to the timesonline of Times Editor James Harding explaining  (not particularly effectively in my opinion) why this step is  being taken. Ironically, I had to watch an advert before the piece. I hate that. God, I'd pay not to have that crap getting in the way if I could. I loathe the increasing banality of online advertising - as the media landscape gets more cluttered advertisers resort to ever crasser ways to try and grab our attention - people walking across the screen, pop ups, things jumping around in the sidebars. For me it just doesn't work. An ad-free reading/viewing environment on-line would be heavenly. But will Timesonline and Sunday times online still carry ads? I bet they do.

Fascinating times. What do you think this means for writers and for readers?

31 Responses to “Would you pay to read The Times online?”

  1. Abi 26. Mar, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    Hm...The reality is that right now I wouldn't pay, I'd go to another newspaper's site. However, if they ALL started charging, then, yes, I would.

    Good news for writers, I'd have thought, unless the video aspect really takes off. Why would you use writers for that when you could employ accomplished broadcasters from mainstream media?

    (Belated congratulations on the new site ;) )

    • Jeremy Head 26. Mar, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

      Hello Abi
      Thanks for the congrats - the reason they'd employ a 'writer' rather than mainstream media is cost. Whilst there doubtless is some budget around for multimedia journalism, my guess is not enough to employ tv production people for example.
      That's my hunch anyway. I am definitely going post more on this topic soon!
      Jeremy

  2. Mark Pawlak 26. Mar, 2010 at 12:02 pm #

    Jeremy,

    Good points. Although, how can we not want to pay for news, but want colleagues to be paid to write it?

    Also, I believe the web is too wide for news to escape syndication. A 'ghost site' with a paid up subscription may not manage it, but as with music and movie piracy, the web will evolve, and provide.

    Interestingly, it is not only journalism that is changing, but photography too. Digital SLR's with full HD movie mode, and trainee photographers learning the tools of the written trade: it's hybrid time, 'journophotalism' time.

    Where as photojournalism is seen as a style/type/genre of photography, steeped in an analogue history, journophotalism is specific to our digital era, to syndication: a reflection of a multi-media, social media generation used to posting images and images online.

    Phew! Enough! Feedback time...

    • Jeremy Head 26. Mar, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

      Journophotolism! Love it! :-)

  3. Jeremy Head 26. Mar, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    You can read more of James Harding (Editor of the Times)'s comments here:
    http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/media/article7077351.ece

  4. Nikki Bayley 26. Mar, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    I think it's our habit to skip to free content - and then grumble about being ripped off as writers, so I'm fascinated to see what will happen next. If a paid-for model works, then who knows - maybe the heady days of Content is King could be back, when hacks were paid a fair amount to create original copy instead of SEO-gibberish for buttons... An end to ahem, journo-fatalism?
    Hope so.

  5. Hal Peat 26. Mar, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    Jeremy, believe it or not I am positively fired up about your #3. The whole movement by major broadsheets on both sides of the pond into subscriber viewing does raise the point whether we lesser sites with content can feasibly monetize ourselves with a section that's paywalled. Considering the vast spectrum of special interest websites already long since out there that have membership/subscription areas, I think the answer is surely yes...as long as you're sufficiently branded and speak with an authentic voice on your category or region? By branded, I mean a strong combination of both track record and identity that might inclue a personal connection and provenance with something, or somewhere. As for your #4, I know you're dead set against bloggers going the advert route, but what if the advert is both directly targeted to the content and you the blogger have the access to cut a direct deal with the advertiser rather than going through an affiliate program?

    • Jeremy Head 27. Mar, 2010 at 2:01 pm #

      Hi Hal
      I agree with you pretty much. I do believe that if you can create a really focussed site/blog with useful unique content, people would pay for access. But you need to really offer something pretty good and to do it on an on-going basis. Not sure I could ever commit that much time to Travelblather. I do however like the idea of affiliate stuff. So, not random ads with no targetting, but small numbers of ads for things I know my readers would genuinely be interested in from companies whose products and services I personally rate highly enough to feel comfortable recommending them. There are several people I have had vague conversations with about doing this kind of thing. I think it could make far more revenue than the derisory sum google ads makes for a blog like this... but remain sceptical that it would ever generate really decent income. For me Travelblather is (for now at least) about really offering a useful, engaging, open space for people to discuss, explore ideas and rant about stuff.
      Thanks as always for your comments!
      J

  6. Matthew Teller 27. Mar, 2010 at 9:57 am #

    Would I pay? Seeing as how I don't pay to buy the paper Times, no. But paying for content is perfectly right & proper, and yes I will do it. But you're absolutely tight, Jeremy: the ads have got to go.

    As for journophotalism (great word!), that's clearly one identifiable strand of a future for travel journalism. The key is the payment model. As of now, writers are expected to provide professional images - and sometimes video - for no extra fee above the standard word rate. That must change. If the paywall model injects some money into a bankrupt system and starts to value creative content highly enough again to pay for video and podcasts, that can only be good.

    Paying for stuff again: hooray! Bring it on.

    • Mark Pawlak 29. Mar, 2010 at 8:17 am #

      Matthew,

      I think Journophotalism, and all it entails, is the future career path most of us will have to tread.

      For editors its a no-brainer: If you can have a writer who can photograph as well as a photographer, why pay two salaries? But therein lies the problem: It takes years to get that good - but some of us have years; you need professional equipment - some of us have that too.

      It's definitely evolving. It just needs editors to believe in it, people to believe in themselves, to not work for free, and to rise above the happy-snappy and tappy-tappy user-generated content.

      Can I photograph like a pro? No, but in some cases I can provide an image good enough, and as with resolution, good enough is good enough.

      Jack of all trades, master of none, perhaps?

      Mp

  7. John Despard 27. Mar, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    Coming from it from another angle not as a journalist but as someone who lives abroad I would be happy to pay. I cannot buy an English copy of the Times (or any other paper) in my part of France, they are all European editions without any extras like travel sections. Also they are always a day old.
    On the subject of advertising I have been approached to put relevant ads on my site for a monthly fee. So I think you will find that in the end any decent website or blog will carry adverts even if just to pay for the hosting. If your content includes video streaming this uses lots of bandwidth which your hosting company will charge you for.
    PS like the new blog.

  8. C.B.Osborne 27. Mar, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    "...expected to provide professional images - and sometimes video - for no extra fee above the standard word rate..."

    Writers who allow themselves to be compromised by not demanding payment for images, video or still, are not only doing themselves an injustice, but are undermining the entire picture industry.

    I was pleased, as a rookie travel writer, to see my pictures published with my article. It did not take long to learn that I was being screwed.

    BAPLA is the picture library and agencies association should anyone wish to check their thoughts on the matter.

    As regards paying to access The Times/Sunday Times on-line: I personally will continue to purchase my daily copy of `whatever` - Times, Independent, Guardian - and read on-line whichever remains `free`. But like the gentleman living in France, should I move to a spot where
    my paper of preference is unavailable on a same day basis, I would certainly pay to read it on-line.

    I believe that News International will not remain alone for very long in charging. As someone has pointed out, if they pay for good writing on-line, sooner or later, they`ll all follow suit.

    Thanks.

  9. pam 27. Mar, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    That bit about Murdoch and Bing? SOOOOO interesting. I'm keen to see how all that plays out. I don't know enough about the technical underpinning to understand how a site can make itself invisible to a search engine, but I like the idea of any philosophy that undermines the idea of your so excellently described zero sum game of producing word for search, not for readers. (I have an axe to grind about this, it seems.)

    On another note, while I do love photography and don't suck at it, I find it challenging to constantly have to keep adding new media skills to my portfolio. My love affair is first and foremost with the written word. I'm not a Luddite, not by a long shot, but also, I didn't become a writer overnight, nor will I become a producer of good travel video overnight. It's a continually frustrating thing that as the pay for writing decreases, the expectation for what I can deliver as a writer goes up -- got photos? Video? SEO skills? How's your php?

    Rambling. Stopping now.

    • Jeremy Head 28. Mar, 2010 at 9:53 am #

      Hi Pam
      I completely agree. I became a photographer by default. Then I did a bit of TV and started getting to grips with video... but like you, it's the written word that remains my real craft and passion. It's going to be an interesting ride isn't it!
      Jeremy

  10. Melissa Shales 27. Mar, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    I agree in principle to the idea of paying for good content and applaud Murdoch (never did I think I would write those words) for being the one to grasp the nettle. However I am not sure he's chosen the right payment model. My feeling is that if people can eventually bundle together a collection of preferred sites in a monthly access payment package a la Sky and can then wander in and out freely as they will, without having to worry further about the money, they would pay happily. If however they are reminded that they are paying every day, they will think how expensive it is, and count their pennies. So web publishers need to get together and someone needs to start packaging.

    • Jeremy Head 28. Mar, 2010 at 9:56 am #

      Hi Melissa
      I think that's exactly what we'll end up with. My hunch is that you'll start to see bundles across the News International products. It would seem the obvious way to go - cross-promote to your existing customer bases. So, add access to the Timesonline to your Sky 'Current Affairs' package etc. You'll be able to watch TV on your laptop or browse the Times on your TV too - so the distinction between the 2 media will become increasingly blurred. If you look at the timesplus offering already there's a sensation of this already. 'Subscribe and get restaurant deals, theatre deals etc for free along with access/subscription to the Times.
      J

  11. David Whitley 28. Mar, 2010 at 1:14 pm #

    Personally, I don't think £104 a year for a subscription to a very good newspaper (be it online or in print) is much at all.

    And when I see a very good newspaper appear, I will be happy to pay this.

    The Times will have to do something substantially different from what it is currently doing to fall into this category, however. In short - it needs to be producing the sort of journalism that costs (in depth analysis, proper investigations, superbly written comment and features). Churn out roughly what the other papers churn out, and it's doomed to fail.

    As for the increasing need to multi-skill, it's something that worries me. This is not because it's more to learn, but because I often find the skills don't compliment each other whilst on the ground.

    I wrote the other day about how you don't observe properly when you're taking pictures (http://www.grumpytraveller.com/2010/03/26/learning-when-to-put-the-camera-down/). God knows how you're supposed to take things in properly when Tweeting, photographing, videoing and making sound recordings at the same time. And that's before we even get on to timing - surely it's not just me that finds the times that you want to be somewhere as a writer/researcher don't match up with the times you want to be there as a photographer?

  12. Hal Peat 28. Mar, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    "My love affair is first and foremost with the written word. I'm not a Luddite, not by a long shot, but also, I didn't become a writer overnight, nor will I become a producer of good travel video overnight. It's a continually frustrating thing that as the pay for writing decreases, the expectation for what I can deliver as a writer goes up -- got photos? Video? SEO skills? How's your php?"

    Pam you are so right, I couldn't have said it better. You might also add, how does anyone calculate the possible ROI on all that additional effort and time spent on all those additional skills and chores? In fact, the jury is way out on all that, IMHO. What you have instead at the moment is a group of people coming into the travel category online who have neither knowledge much less respect for travel media as it's been practiced, and proclaiming vehemently that all you need is a "business background" and being willing to participate in their notion of "community". Of course, they never get around to defining how that notion of "community" translates into successfully monetizing a site. All their discourse when this topic arises is about how all other media except their narrow little niche is sinking. It's all kind of a nightmare twist on "the medium is the message". Except, of course, people do ultimately look for a message, for content, and not just the new dazzling bells and whistles, be it video, be it their umpteen links and feeds and knowledge, be it their little circle of friends at BlogWorldOrgy in Vegas who will tweet them till the day they die. So have no fears, Pam, and do what you do best -- because that's where the substance lies. They lack it, so they will fail later if not sooner. Although I'd prefer sooner.

    • Matthew Teller 29. Mar, 2010 at 7:57 am #

      Amen to that.

    • Stuart 29. Mar, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

      While to an extent I agree with Pam, my immediate response would be something along the lines of:

      "If you're writing, and people are reading it, and loving it, why are you branching out into video?"

      It's a bit like a successful novelist deciding they can make movies too (generally they can't). As I mentioned on another blog yesterday (http://www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/shortterm/articles/professional-travel-blogging-jobs.shtml) do what you do best -- if you start trying to do everything, then based on my personal experience (I try to do everything) you end up doing most things -- but half baked.

      I dunno about this whole discourse on this "dubious corner of the blogosphere" that Hal mentions above (which is why I replied to their post directly rather than at the bottom).

      I've met quite a few of the dubious-corner-gatherers -- and yes, some of their blogs I won't be reading again anytime soon, but others are trotting out kickass stuff on a very regular basis and personally I think that rocks!

      Back on topic tho, Yes I think some kind of subscription basis is warranted -- hell I'm no Murdoch but we're kinda moving to it in a couple of weeks. I'm not sure on a grouping tho -- as far as the UK press is concerned I read the Independent, the Guardian and occasionally Times Sunday -- and I'd pay for the first two -- but I can't imagine them all being in a one-fix-for-all subscription package.

      I think the main challenge facing the paper publishers is making sure their copy isn't available elsewhere. If some scraper site is ripping off a NYT story and all I have to do is search for a headline to find it, then that is a problem for the NYT (hello Google?). I assume they'll undertake a few high profile castrations to try and warn off other scrapers, but until they deal with that side of the equation, it is going to be a bit of an uphill push.

      Good discussion - cheers!

      • Jeremy Head 29. Mar, 2010 at 12:50 pm #

        Hi Stuart
        Thanks for your comments... I completely agree with you Wanted to just point out that I can't see it ever being likely that you;d get a bundled subscription to competeing news websites. I was thinking more that you'd get one to partner sites owned by the same organisation. In the case of News International that could for example be The Sun/Times/Sky etc
        Cheers
        Jeremy

        • Stuart 29. Mar, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

          Right -- Agreed. And doesn't that say a lot about the difference in mindset between bloggers (who link to each other -- even ones they don't particularly like -- willy nilly) Vs the papers who wouldn't link to the opposition in a pink fit. The number of times I've read a Guardian story saying "the Times reports blah blah blah" but there's no bleedin link! Come on people - get with the programme!

        • Alastair McKenzie 29. Mar, 2010 at 1:19 pm #

          I think you are 100% wrong about that, Jeremy.

          I think the Sun and The Times "Distribution Managers" (my name for them) will sell wholesale subscriptions on their whole titles to Sky at extra low rates, but they will also do deals with other wholesalers, eg BT Internet or Tesco.

          They might sell online Travel section & lifestyle mag subscriptions to Tesco who are developing a 'Homes & Holiday' bundle for their online shoppers and internet clients. The fact that Tesco's bundle also gives subscription access to other content including The Daily Mail's travel content, Which Holiday and Conde Naste, will be of little concern to them.

          • Jeremy Head 29. Mar, 2010 at 2:07 pm #

            Hi Alastair
            Yes... I guess you could be right. I'd not thought that far ahead.
            But I'm sure they'd prefer to own these relationships themselves and cross market their own properties in the first instance though? Half the value is in owning the customer relationship yourself I'd suggest.
            The more this kind of content becomes commoditised the more you reduce its value. If it were me I'd only go down the Tesco/wholesaler route as a last option. I'd want to retain control.

            Jeremy

          • Jonathan Gilbert 30. Mar, 2010 at 10:05 pm #

            I'm with Alistair on this one. ISPs are best positioned to bundle subscription content. Some things are meant to be free, like the Yellow Pages. Good travel features aren't. But then, most travel features aren't good, particularly in the papers. I'm bored sick of dreary destination pieces, top tens, gastro whaffling, spa simpering, luxury limps around the pool and 'weekends in... fill in the blanks." Where's the adventure gone?

        • Alastair McKenzie 29. Mar, 2010 at 3:15 pm #

          Yes, I probably didn't explain it properly. What I mean is, as you suggest, their PREFERENCE might be to sell subscriptions directly to end users from 'in-house'. IE New International.

          But, that way lies death.

          I think the only way they can charge for content is if the news media industry AS A WHOLE develops a sophisticated reseller market in the way I suggest. (BTW my Tesco example is entirely made up.)

          Murdoch would still have control over his content. His managers could decide what subscriptions to sell, how many, at what rate and to who.

          (BTW, can we use formatting for comment posts in your new blog design, J?

  13. Alastair McKenzie 29. Mar, 2010 at 8:58 am #

    Melissa is absolutely right. The only way it'll work is if subscriptions for News International and other news titles are bundled up and sold by Sky, Amazon, Orange, Tesco, etc, and any other aggregators who want to put together bundles of subscriptions to specialist titles. I've been saying exactly that for some time now. ( http://tronline.blogspot.com/2009/08/how-murdochs-pay-for-news-dreams-could.html )

    But the other key ingredient is technology. It has to work seamlessly. It will totally fail if we have to login every time a link takes us to a subscribed page.

    Also, I won't visit a website BECAUSE I have a subscription to it. If I buy a paper copy of The Times, I'll browse it. But online, I browse ALL sources and might happen to read a Times Online story only because a link takes me there.

    If Murdoch goes it alone, thinking that old-school brand loyalty will enable him to sell subscriptions directly, his papers' fortunes will nose-dive with no chance of recovery unless the vast majority of news media join him.

    That's because the way the web works, since Tim Berners-Lee first invented the hyperlink, is by referral. If I link to something, I have to assume you WILL be able to see it. If more than say 5-10% of my audience are unlikely to be able to visit a page I have linked to, then I won't link to it - simples!

    • Mark Pawlak 29. Mar, 2010 at 9:40 am #

      Alastair,

      You've nailed it: It's about the network, the internet, the grid, the cloud, call it what you will. Openness and transparency don't make good bedfellows of a two-tier internet, and neither will I.

      We bounce between stories: From YouTube clips to validate a news report, to a blog; from a link sent on IM, to a documentary on iPlayer.

      If the truth is out there, it won't be found hunkered behind a wall.

      Mp

  14. pam 29. Mar, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    In response to Stuart re: adopting other media forms, note that I didn't say I was motivated to do so, rather that web publications expect this. Photography seems to be an unpaid, unspoken demand with every article and the fact that I don't suck at it is nice but earns me zero dollars more.

    I'd retarget the question -- if you're a publisher and your writers are producing work that gets read, why divert them to other media? Why require your best writer to shoot photos? Is a mediocre video worth more than a better than average photo? Is that better than average photo worth more than an excellent essay? In terms of the web, this may be so, I don't know.

    This may circle back to the idea that as "content producers" -- a term I have come to hate -- we are responsible for feeding the web as an entity in raw media types -- words, pictures, video -- and not feeding reader intellects.

    And I fear I'm digressing. Apologies.

  15. Hal Peat 02. Apr, 2010 at 9:10 pm #

    "I dunno about this whole discourse on this "dubious corner of the blogosphere" that Hal mentions above ...I've met quite a few of the dubious-corner-gatherers -- and yes, some of their blogs I won't be reading again anytime soon, but others are trotting out kickass stuff on a very regular basis and personally I think that rocks!"

    Since there's some statistic like 20,000 new blogs created a week, it's very fortunate that not all 20K per week are dubious then, isn't it? Stands to reason that you've read something good. So have I. Since we're not allowed to discuss personalities on here however, I'll just leave it at another generalization. Some sites have a consistent high quality stable of contributors, like Worldhum, others like Matadornetwork and Bootsnall are a very mixed bag, to put it kindly. They are like the public bus -- you just never know who or what has dragged themselves aboard, or how long you might have to hold your nose. The same with certain communities.

  16. Bruce 19. May, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    Hi Alastair
    Yes... I guess you could be right. I'd not thought that far ahead.
    But I'm sure they'd prefer to own these relationships themselves and cross market their own properties in the first instance though? Half the value is in owning the customer relationship yourself I'd suggest.
    The more this kind of content becomes commoditised the more you reduce its value. If it were me I'd only go down the Tesco/wholesaler route as a last option. I'd want to retain control.

    Jeremy