The Times vs. Guardian strategies: uber-dumb & smart

By Steve Outing

Today is the first day for the hard paywall at Rupert Murdoch’s The Times and Sunday Times‘ websites. I have one good thing to say about Murdoch, and the rest will be extremely critical. …

At least the declining media tycoon has the guts to try out the online paywall strategy that he’s been pushing on his flagship newspaper. Most newspaper chains try out website paywalls on some small properties that don’t have much or any local competition; they don’t have the nerve to try it on their big-city papers that have competitors sticking to the Web mostly free-content model. (Freedom Communications’ experience with a small-paper website paywall failure explains why this is the norm.)

Enough compliments. Otherwise, Murdoch is acting the fool.

I cruised the Web this morning to see if Times content really is behind a “hard” paywall; it is. I picked the top headline on the homepage, then searched for it with Google News and Google Web search; the Times’ top story is invisible to Google. What about Digg? Nope, Times’ news is absent. You can find older links to Times news articles, but clicking them gets you the same thing as going directly to thetimes.co.uk: this pay-or-go-away screen…

Paywalls are not — or should not be — black and white. There are many considerations, and what Murdoch has ordered done with the Times’ websites is purely black. NYTimes.com is planning to introduce a “metered paywall” in January, which is a shade of gray; a visitor to NYTimes.com will be allowed X many free articles in the space of a month, before being asked to pay. In a further shade of gray, NYTimes.com executives have indicated that they don’t want to chase away Web traffic or discourage anyone from linking to NYT online content. So for a visitor to a NYT online article who comes through Digg, or a link spotted on Twitter or Facebook, or a blog or other website, those visits won’t be counted against a NYTimes.com visitor’s monthly allotment of free articles.

What times.co.uk has done is ensure that virtually no one will link to its content, and no one can sample its content without at least buying a day pass ($2 or £1) or paying that same amount for a one-month trial subscription (with the price rising after the trial). Since The Times has plenty of strong competitors offering free-model websites, I don’t see this having a snowball’s chance in hell of working.

Most newspaper executives understand the futility of the hard paywall, and even those working on newspaper site paywall strategies understand the subtleties that Murdoch is ignoring. I was at a conference in Denver a couple weeks ago where two VPs from Denver-based MediaNews Group talked about the paywall strategy they’re designing to try out at some of the smaller MNG papers’ websites.

(… Side note: Both of those guys were laid off last week in a purge of the MNG executive floor; about a dozen people lost their jobs, including the chief architects of the paywall experiment. …)

The strategy that they talked about was of creating “Member Zones,” where online users would, they hope, pay for premium subscriptions online; existing or new print-edition subscribers would likely get access to the Member Zones for no extra charge. What would be in the paid Member Zones was yet to be nailed down, they said, but could be the newspapers’ core locally produced content. The innovative twist to the strategy was to keep the free websites valuable by adding new, lower-cost content, to keep traffic coming to the free site and continuing to have it be a good ad vehicle, while also creating a new online subscription revenue stream. While loyal website users would lose some content that used to be free online, that would be replaced with other Web-exclusive content.

I’m not going to endorse that model, and I don’t know what will happen now that the people in charge of it have been laid off, but at least it shows some understanding of the Web and online audience behavior.

The Times’ hard paywall, by comparison, is … oh, to hell with being diplomatic … stupid in its inflexibility and lack of subtlety.

We can probably expect a brain drain at the Times/Sunday Times newsroom. Britain’s top journalists have aspired to write for The Times for decades; what journalist with serious credentials would want to work there now that the global influence of The Times has been wiped away?

Of course, this is great news (a gift, really) for other British national newspapers that think more clearly about what it takes to succeed in the digital era. I tip my hat to The Guardian, which is going in the opposite direction of Murdoch and company. Guardian.co.uk actually wants other websites, blogs, etc. to republish its content. Earlier today I experimented with its WordPress plug-in and posted a full Guardian article on this blog. The embedded article includes an ad and the revenue from it goes to the Guardian; it also includes tracking code so that Guardian digital staff can track traffic to their content coming from external sites like my little blog. If some large news sites start embedding Guardian full articles, then the financial potential could be significant.

The Guardian’s API strategy is the antithesis of what we’re seeing from Rupert Murdoch. It’s smart and plays to the potential of the World Wide Web as a revenue generator. Murdoch appears to want to find revenue from a group of brand-loyal people within Britain. Yeah, good luck with that, Rupert.

The old guy apparently still doesn’t understand that this whole pay-for-news-online thing is not about the needs of publishers like him. It’s about what the audience for news is willing to do and willing to pay for. They’ll pay if they think what you offer is worth it to them; they mostly won’t if what you charge for is equivalent to what a credible news provider down the street is offering online for free.

Rupert, what is it that you don’t understand about that?

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!