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First chink in Times paywall

The Times behind the paywall

The Times: Knock-down admission price

Of course it’s early days in the new paywall encompassing the Times and Sunday Times, but indications are that what’s happening behind the Murdoch motte and bailey is exactly what everyone thought would happen: online viewers have left in TNT lorryloads. Everyone knew they would, that is, except perhaps for the benighted folk at Wapping.

In a bid to lure them back, Murdoch’s belatedly launched Plan B: knock-down admission prices.

Yesterday, those who signed up to the Times/ST sites while they were free were offered a month’s subscription for just a nicker:

email offering £1 a month subscription

Hurry! Hurry! Only a nicker!

That it’s taken them two weeks to come up with this wheeze – surely one of the oldest tricks in the Murdoch Book of Cut-throat Competition for Dummies – suggests that the change to paywall hasn’t been as carefully thought-out as commentators thought it was.

It would have been a better idea to introduce the knock-down a-nugget-a-month offer immediately after the free period, thereby introducing viewers to the idea of paying and keeping the losses – those who won’t pay under any circumstances – to a minimum but retaining a healthy number of wobblers – those who initially baulk at the idea of paying but would be kept on board if they thought they were getting a bargain.

Wobblers

The cack-handed way the change has been handled means Murdoch faces the uphill struggle of luring back those wobblers, who have had two weeks to explore a Times-free web and still be able to read the juicy/juiceless bits of Mandelson’s turgid autobiography, if they have a taste for masochism.

The Mandelson morass was, it seems, supposed to be the killer lure which would keep the punters online, eagerly shelling out £2 a week with tongues hanging out waiting for the next installment.

It says more about the mutual analingal relationship between the political class and the media class, as represented by editors James Harding and John Witherow, along with Mini-Murdoch James’s flunkeys Rebekah Wade Brooks and Will Lewis, that anyone thought anyone outside those symbiotic cliques would be interested in Mandy’s turgid emissions.

There was very little in them about the TeeBeeGeeBees that we didn’t already know, and those we didn’t know could have made a downpage hamper on page 4, rather than stretched across endless double page spreads over a week. “Blair thought Brown was ‘mad, bad and dangerous’.”Mandelson’s memoirs reveal Labour split“. Yawn. Bore. Fart. The man on the Clapham omnibus was falling asleep over his iPad.

Hacks

Now, I’ve got no objection to paywalls on news sites: I’m a journalist, after all, and I agree 100% with Murdoch’s view that it costs money to provide news, which should be paid for, so that hacks get their slice. But as I’ve pointed out here, on the web, just as much as any other media outlet, content is king and if you want the punters to pay, you have to have content they will pay for.

The Mandy memoirs didn’t cut it. No one in their right mind – and that almost by definition would rule out almost everyone in the political and media classes these days – would buy them.

A book serialisation is a tried and tested way to boost circulation (I use the term to also mean web readership). But for the same amount Wapping shelled out for the Mandy Files they could have got rights to two or even three books of much wider and more gripping interest.

For instance, I’ve just read this review of Jonathan Green’s Murder in the High Himalaya. A true story of “loyalty, tragedy and escape from Tibet” – plus, as reviewer Jonathan Mirsky points out, an awful lot of cowardice – I came away thinking: “I’d really like to read this”. I reckon a serialisation of it spread over a couple of days would have left a lot of readers thinking the same.

Then you could have a serialisation of another book, which would have been just as alluring. And it doesn’t even have to be a new book. In My Paper Chase, Harold Evans recalls taking over editorship of the Northern Echo and requiring a quick-fix serialisation to boost slumping sales, but not having much of a budget:

“I came across an old copy of [Winston Churchill’s] My Early Life (1930). I’d read his war histories, but not this, and I suspected few of my generation had. I was so enchanted by it that I wrote to him and asked permission to serialise it. He sent a warm note back saying go ahead. It proved popular.”

In the week that kicked off the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, what chance the Wapping lot could have found a gripping, well-told but long-forgotten memoir of Their Finest Hour? Pretty much odds-on, I’d reckon.

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  1. July 18, 2010 at 5:48 am

    “Now, I’ve got no objection to paywalls on news sites: I’m a journalist, after all, and I agree 100% with Murdoch’s view that it costs money to provide news, which should be paid for, so that hacks get their slice. But as I’ve pointed out here, on the web, just as much as any other media outlet, content is king and if you want the punters to pay, you have to have content they will pay for.”

    Like you I’m a journalist who worries about how publishers will make enough money to pay my wages. I’m happy to carry on buying print newspapers so long as they aren’t complete crap and don’t get ridiculously expensive. I subscribe to a couple of online paywalls – for specialist content. And I work as a freelance for an online-only title which is subscriber only.

    In other words, I know the territory.

    You’re right to point out people will only pay if a publisher can serve-up great content. Frankly, I don’t see The Times ever doing this and the Mandelson self-justification series is exactly the kind of content I wouldn’t pay for.

    I don’t think any book serialisation would cut it. If I was Rupert, I would have extra journalists pounding the beat looking for dozens of niche-market exclusives, then make sure the first par is available for free to drag readers in.

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