Murdoch's paywall: The end of the suicide era?
Staggering on could count as success
News International is offering a glimpse of its revamped Times and Sunday Times newspaper sites, before they disappear behind a paywall in four weeks' time. Murdoch's move has been greeted with a lot of angst from people who never pay for anything - the Kumbaya crowd - but also criticism from rivals who, hypocritically, secretly hope he'll succeed.
Then there's people for whom the word 'Murdoch' produces a Pavlovian response - he's the pantomime villain hate-figure Guardian readers use to frighten their children if they're naughty. Or maybe children evoke him to frighten their Guardian-reading parents. Still, the move is interesting for a bunch of reasons, and worth looking at dispassionately.
Defining 'success' here is problematic - and something nobody seems to be able to agree upon. We do know the parent group News Corporation lost $3.4bn in its last full financial year, so Murdoch's appetite for appeasing people who'd never pay him a penny is understandably wearing thin. While the daily Times has never made money, and has been used as a competitive battering ram, the Sunday Times is the cash cow that's now (apparently) making a loss. Something had to give.
The Times site design junks the camp pastel-shades and generous white space that were fashionable in 2006, when it was last revamped. It now looks a lot more like a professional newspaper than a blog, and if there's a criticism, it's that the design could look even more like a newspaper. Scroll down just once and you're into multimedia featureland - for some reason, the op-eds appear halfway down the page, and feel like the footer - before the sections news reappears.
(You need to view it in portrait mode, the default for the iPad, natch, to do it justice.)
The Daily Mail on the other hand, has no doubts about what you want. There are no multimedia features - slide shows, live chats, podcasts or video reports - just a relentless display of Mail news, with the thrills for provincials downplayed in favour of showbiz cellulite. It's quite a brilliant formula, and very successful: no paper cares less about cultivating a New Media Strategy. It just bungs it out at minimal cost.
The new-look Sunday Times, appropriately enough, looks much more like an upmarket magazine. Unfortunately it buries its historical strength for breaking news. Again, it feels as if it's optimized for portrait view, and works much better if you swivel your monitor 90 degrees.
In a move also likely to be welcomed, the new Times sites will not allow anonymous or even pseudonymous comments - you must use your real name. Or work a bit harder on your pseudonym. The editors justify this by pointing out that anonymous comments don't encourage a community, which is hard to argue with. But many of the best contributions on boards, lists and now forums have come from the ranks of the pseudonymous, so it's harsh.
The sites are also highly unfriendly to grazing readers. Google will be blocked, and incoming links merely point to the paywall. Most sites, such as the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, offer a teaser, and a ladder up the paywall. This just seems plain daft. And surprisingly, there isn't a great deal of unique content. The new Times designs, obviously for a paysite, dispense with advertising altogether.
So much for the smart resdesign. But will it work financially?
The paywall doesn't have to pay
It all depends on what you mean by 'success'. The size of the audience will shrink dramatically, but then as we pointed out here, much of the audience for a general purpose newspaper isn't really worth anything.
The Times is charging £2 a week for access. Some estimates put the amount of online advertising gathered by the Times at under £20m a year. So if 'success' means matching today's online ad revenue with online subs, then Murdoch needs about 175,000 people to suddenly acquire the habit of paying for stuff online.
This is... optimistic.
But maybe this isn't the plan; there are other measures of success. When the techno-utopian Web 2.0 crowd asked the newspapers to commit suicide by giving away everything for free, there was no need for the newspapers to pay any notice. Remember that the Times has an average of over 600,000 people giving it a pound a day, every day (Saturday's is £1.50), and from that you can start to build a business. Making up £20m in gross revenue is a lot easier from people who already pay you money. In fact, it requires about 50,000 more people (on average) to start paying for the daily Times to meet the revenues likely to be lost from going behind a paywall. Obviously there are several titles in play, and very obviously, we're talking about gross revenue not margin, and (in theory) margins are greater on the web (or should be).
Is finding 50,000 Times readers so difficult? The paper has lost around 80,000 paying customers since 2006, when it opted for the pastel colours, and expanded its web presence. Go figure.
The great paywall adventure may go wrong for all kinds of reasons: the stuff isn't as unique or compelling as News International thinks, perhaps, or the price is too high. As I said, the debate is coloured by the fact that Murdoch is a ritual hate figure for some people. Unfortunately this tends to affect people's judgement. Many more actually wish it would work, though they're loathe to admit it. And whatever else Murdoch may be, he certainly isn't stupid.
So perhaps 'success' here is 'not committing suicide' and merely involves getting people to pay real money for your real product. ®