Times paywall debate offers little substance

Figures released by the newspaper show 105,000 subscribers have stuck their virtual hand in the virtual pocket for The Times online over the past four months.

It says it has received a further 100,000 subs for the newspaper and the online edition – most existing print subscribers who can access The Times online as part of their package.

Getting to the accuracy of these figures is difficult by reading the British press.

Self-interest abounds.

The anti-Murdoch gallery gleefully declares paywalls an abject failure while News International, publisher of The Times, declares it is happy with the number.

Some subscribers say they have two accounts – one for PC and another for the iPad – so perhaps there is some double-up in these numbers. Frankly, who’s to say other than those who have the real spreadsheet, and does it matter anyway?

The interest stems from the fact The Times is the first mainstream, high-profile Murdoch title to lead the charge to erect paywalls as part of a potentially game-changing, medium-term strategy for a global media giant.

Sure, the Wall St Journal has done it but its audience and content are different. Admittedly, it sells 2m copies a day and is America’s biggest-selling newspaper but its readers do not live on Mainstream St.

The pundits’ fascination is to see whether Murdoch can pull off what is an essential but nonetheless audacious attempt to change how readers’ value journalism on the net – and make them pay for it.
Digital zealots would love to see him fail.

These early figures offer little guidance.

At one level, I am impressed so many people – more than can be held at Wembley Stadium – want to pay for The Times when there are so many good, free alternatives, such as The Guardian or Daily Mail. To declare The Times paywall a failure is a typical, short-timeframe response.
Part of the trouble for our industry is that commentators and bloggers latch on to issues that really are only part of the story. It is far more useful to know News International can run a paywalled-site at a profit because that, surely, is the real business challenge.

To understand success and failure requires knowledge of the business and the strategy that drives it. Plucking out figures over an initial four-month period tells us very little of substance.

Such strategies need a minimum two years to work through properly – unless they tank miserably.

The Times is on an important path but real success will be secured with profits, not just subscribers.

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