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!

12 Responses to "The Times vs. Guardian strategies: uber-dumb & smart"

  1. Pernille Tranberg
    Pernille Tranberg 6 years ago .Reply

    Dear Steve Outing
    I know how fiercely against paying for journalism you are, but please do explain what is so brilliant about the Guardian’s strategy. As far as I understand they just continue the FREE strategy and at the same time they have deep economic problems because it is expensive producing such high quality as the Guardian does?
    Cheers Pernille

  2. […] The Times vs. Guardian strategies: uber-dumb & smart […]

  3. […] Outing at least lays his cards on the table, saying Rupert Murdoch’s move is uber-dumb. He makes a point of how “hard” the paywalls actually are – no Google indexing […]

  4. Crosbie Fitch
    Crosbie Fitch 6 years ago .Reply

    One has to wonder why those such as Pernille are out to characterise anyone as against paying for journalism.

    It must be because they readily recognise that they can’t characterise anyone as ‘against paying for copies’ because that is an evidently reasonable position. However, someone against paying journalists for their labour on principle is a tantamount to slave driver (a position you’d expect the likes of Murdoch to sympathise with – free labour=more profit).

    Murdoch’s problem is that he profits from selling copy (aka content) at monopoly protected prices – not journalism. For him journalism is an inconvenient overhead that must be borne in order to sell copies.

    Journalists sell journalism, usually to newspapers. However, the newspaper producer being unable to sell copies is doomed, so journalists are going to have to look for new customers. The only customers left are those formerly known as newspaper purchasers, i.e. people interested in receiving good journalism.

    And that’s what’s left: journalists and their readers. The readers’ money for the journalist’s journalism (not the derogatory ‘content’ used to fill paper containers with). This is a direct transaction. There are no copies, no newspapers, no Murdochs, because there is no market for copies. It’s just a simple exchange of journalism and money.

    So the likes of Pernille have got the wrong end of the stick. The future is bright for those paying journalists for journalism, and journalists hoping to be paid for their work. What is coming to an end is paying for copies (an end to the 18th century suspension of the public’s liberty to make and sell copies in a free market).

  5. Sam Ford
    Sam Ford 6 years ago .Reply

    Great comparison of two business models here, Steve. The question you pose is one that trade publications have really been struggling with as well: how to balance the way people spread content today with a business model that pays to allow the journalism to continue to happen. Of course, word-of-mouth and sharing is nothing new, but–as you point out–the way that media is spread has been amplified, and thus the “spread” has proliferated. This puts new, “unofficial” voices in the mix more readily, and it leaves the “big guns” questioning how exactly to sell their value. If you overly police the spread of your content, you of course limit its impact. I’ll be interested in seeing how the NY Times’ model works, but it seems that Guardian’s idea is getting at something…”Quote us and link back, or excerpt and full and carry with it an add.”

  6. […] Steve Outing and Poynter’s Bill Mitchell noted that the Times’ paywall is among the most impenetrable we’ve seen yet in newspapers: All non-subscribers can see is the homepage, and even the headlines are blocked from online news aggregators. New York’s Chris Rovsar took stock of what The New York Times (planning its own paid-content system next year) could learn from how the Times rolled out its paywall, and basically, it boils down to, “Whatever they did, just don’t do it.” He and the Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford ripped the Times’ paid-content strategy, criticizing it for not being RSS-compatible, not linking, and giving away desperate-looking freebies. (Rovsar and Ponsford do acknowledge that the site is cheap and pretty, respectively.) British journalist Kevin Anderson used the Times’ paywall as an opportunity to light into the thinking that leads newspapers to charge for content online in the first place. […]

  7. […] Steve Outing and Poynter’s Bill Mitchell noted that the Times’ paywall is among the most impenetrable we’ve seen yet in newspapers: All non-subscribers can see is the homepage, and even the headlines are blocked from online news aggregators. New York’s Chris Rovsar took stock of what The New York Times (planning its own paid-content system next year) could learn from how the Times rolled out its paywall, and basically, it boils down to, “Whatever they did, just don’t do it.” He and the Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford ripped the Times’ paid-content strategy, criticizing it for not being RSS-compatible, not linking, and giving away desperate-looking freebies. (Rovsar and Ponsford do acknowledge that the site is cheap and pretty, respectively.) British journalist Kevin Anderson used the Times’ paywall as an opportunity to light into the thinking that leads newspapers to charge for content online in the first place. […]

  8. […] 1: Steve Outing sieht sich von einer Kommentatorin seines Blogposts über die Times-Paywall gründlich missverstande… und nutzt die Gelegenheit, seine Ausführungen zu präzisieren. Hier ist eins seiner Argumente: […]

  9. […] Steve Outing: The Times vs Guardian Strategies: Uber-dumb & Smart […]

  10. […] 5% in the paidcontent.co.uk and Harris survey would pay to continue to use the service. (For a good critique of the Murdochs’ hard paywall that they just erected around The Times and The Su… look at different commercial […]

  11. […] Steve Outing and Poynter’s Bill Mitchell noted that the Times’ paywall is among the most impenetrable we’ve seen yet in newspapers: All non-subscribers can see is the homepage, and even the headlines are blocked from online news aggregators. New York’s Chris Rovsar took stock of what The New York Times (planning its own paid-content system next year) could learn from how the Times rolled out its paywall, and basically, it boils down to, “Whatever they did, just don’t do it.” He and the Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford ripped the Times’ paid-content strategy, criticizing it for not being RSS-compatible, not linking, and giving away desperate-looking freebies. (Rovsar and Ponsford do acknowledge that the site is cheap and pretty, respectively.) British journalist Kevin Anderson used the Times’ paywall as an opportunity to light into the thinking that leads newspapers to charge for content online in the first place. […]

  12. […] four years ago now. At the time it seemed like a ludicrous move, many websites thought it would fail. The fact of the matter is, it […]

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