Digital-Words

Paywalls- Turning Point or Last Gasp for Newspapers?

The Sun is setting on the era of free news.

The website of the UK’s favourite red top newspaper is set to disappear behind a paywall in the autumn.

This follows the announcement by The Daily Telegraph that it is also going to charge for access to its website.

On-line readers will be prevented by a metered paywall from accessing more than 20 stories a month without a digital subscription.

These changes follow what’s been happening across the other side of the Atlantic.

The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle are to follow the lead of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and charge for online content.

But the Sun and Telegraph may not find the change as easy as their American counterparts.

Publishers on both sides of the Atlantic know they will face resentment when readers find themselves charged for something once free.

But in the UK, there is the added problem that they are also going be able to continue to find high quality and comprehensive coverage without paying.

Unlike the US, Britain has a large publicly funded news organisation, the BBC, which pumps out vast amounts of free content all day long.

And the Daily Mail and Guardian have chosen a different course in which they distribute content for free and try to maximise advertising revenue around it.

It is a strategy which has helped the Mail website, whose product is much closer to The Sun than the content in its own paper, become the world’s most popular news site.

The big question for The Sun is whether, in such hard times, its readers will be prepared to hand over cash – even with the carrot of unique Premier League clips.

When making the decision, they had the experience of News International’s other UK title, The Times, to guide them.

The Times already operates a ‘hard’ paywall which allows no access to content without subscription.

According to The National Readership Survey, the result is the Times is now read by fewer people than any other general quality newspaper brand.

To be fair, there is no easy solution for publishers.  Print is declining and the internet has destroyed the appeal of the content bundle, which is what a newspaper is.

Online subscriptions will support quality journalism so businesses need to experiment with multiple revenue sources in the new era.

The calculation for The Sun and Telegraph is that, even with a much smaller level of readership, the revenue from subscription will provide a sustainable income.

It is claimed that The Times, with a smaller readership, is in better financial health than the Guardian which continues to give all its content away.

For my money, however, the flight to paywalls runs counter to the way audiences want to consume media in a digital age.

Users are now comfortable with content discovery through search and social media.

And if your content is not easily findable on Google or shareable on social media, then, over time, you are going to lose readers and become less influential.

We already have clients who tell us they don’t want material given to the paywalled publications – precisely for this reason.

It will be fascinating to see the impact of the on-line moves by the Sun and Telegraph.

Their owners hope they will prove a turning point in the quest for a sustainable business model for newspapers.

But they could also help speed up their own inevitable decline. Only time will tell.

Written By

Mark Flanagan