On July 2, the London Times went behind a pay wall, enforcing a £2 a week surcharge to read any and all of its content. It was Rupert Murdoch’s decision to make the move, as part of his larger plan to move all of his News Corp. titles’ content into for-pay terrain. Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal here in New York already operates with a highly successful, semi-permeable pay wall. But its rival, the New York Times, currently provides all of its content online for free. Coming in January of 2011, though, the Gray Lady will also institute a new pay wall. It won’t exactly mimic that of the London Times, as it will be a metered system and some content will even be available for free — but the transition from all-access to costly content will be jarring, to say the least. So what can our Times learn from the Times across the pond? We scanned the critical response to the London paper’s new pay wall to see.
Be prepared to take a hit, no matter how far in advance you warn your readers. A month before the thetimes.co.uk website went behind its pay wall, it began asking readers to register (for free) before observing any content. According to the website Hitwise, this alone was a huge blow to traffic. Its percentage of the market share of web traffic (alongside other major news outlets) was reduced by half in less than a month, to 2.67 percent from 4.37 percent. “Registration can work as a screening device,” Hitwise noted, on the plus side. “People who are willing to take the time to register are much more likely to read content, return to a site and — hopefully — click on advertising.” But still, selling ads to people reading headlines about how your traffic is crashing is no easy task.
Don’t offer freebies to get people to buy in; it makes you look desperate. Murdoch was throwing Toy Story 3 tickets at people even before the big day. Seriously.
Make it RSS-friendly. A key element to the Times’ metered pay-wall plan is the fact that blogs will be able to provide access to linked material. But currently, perhaps because of Murdoch’s mistrust for search engines, RSS feeds cannot read thetimes.co.uk’s content as it becomes live, according to Dominic Ponsford. As a result, bloggers are less able and likely to skim through all of the paper’s content quickly and provide the all-important links to send readers into the website.
Make the price surprisingly low. This, no doubt, the Times has already thought of. One of the main selling points of the new thetimes.co.uk is that it only costs £2 a week (about $2.89), which is much less than the cover price — and considering that all the costs of printing and distribution are eliminated, it should be.
Keep your eye on the competition. Readership at other key U.K. news sites got a serious bounce when just the free registration page appeared at the London Times. Remember back in 2007 when the Post decided to up its newsstand cost to 50 cents from 25 cents, and for a couple of weeks the rival Daily News dropped down to 25 cents, crushing the Post’s circulation for that period and forcing them to back out of the price cut for a while? Post owner Rupert Murdoch hasn’t forgotten, and you can bet that he’ll capitalize on any turmoil among readers at nytimes.com in order to try to poach them.
Mind your talent. Big-name Times columnists grumbled the last time they were put behind a pay wall, during the paper’s brief “TimesSelect” program. And bloggers will be put behind this newest version, too — and not all of them are likely to enjoy it. One blogger has already jumped ship from thetimes.co.uk to the rival guardian.co.uk. With a host of venture-capital-funded free-content sites like the Daily Beast and Capital waiting with potentially cushy landing spots, it may be tempting for more talent to jump ship.
Take care of the payment part early. There are going to be glitches on the first day, so just accept that. But if it’s possible, allow readers to submit their payment information before that so as to minimize distress on the big day. This was a problem for thetimes.co.uk, which did not allow payment information to be processed before the official pay-wall launch. A sea of people with problems logging in on the first day is going to seriously stall momentum — and result in endless bitchy blog posts like this one.