If declining print newspapers don’t find better ways to monetise their growing digital audiences they will go out of business, it’s as simple as that.
Luckily, there appears to be a way to do that which – in the words of one media analyst – has “no downside”.
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The saviour of journalism could be the paywall, or to be more precise – the metered paywall – a tactic pioneered by the FT in 2007 when it started limiting free access to 10 articles per month (they change the limit from time to time by the way and it currently stands at eight).
Because the vast majority of web readers flit in just once or twice a month to news websites, a metered paywall is a way of making money out of the most loyal ones while retaining a higher overall volume of traffic.
The metered paywall also offers new readers ample opportunity to sample content and means content can still be shared and promoted via social media and Google.
The early evidence from Telegraph Media Group is that if the meter is set high enough, in its case at 20 articles a month, the paywall has little impact at all on overall traffic.
According to ABC, in April (its first full month with the paywall in place) Telegraph.co.uk attracted just over 3m ‘unique browsers’ a day, up 30 per cent year on year. This was a faster rate of growth than the still completely free Guardian on 4.8m a day, up 23 per cent.
The FT now claims to have more than 328,000 paying digital subscribers versus a total print circulation of 266,170.
Two years ago the New York Times limited free website access to 10 free articles per month. By the end of last year its subscriber numbers had reached 640,000.
At the start of this year Andrew Sullivan put his US-based blog The Dish behind a metered paywall (with seven stories a month free). So far the new model has brought in gross revenue of $680,000. Not bad for a site with a staff of seven (plus two interns).
The question appears to be now not why have a paywall, but why not?
Mail Online and The Guardian are the only UK newspaper websites which attract more traffic than the Telegraph.
With a still profitable newspaper to back it up, Mail Online can afford to wait a little longer and see how much further its global traffic can rocket (according to ABC it attracted 120m ‘unique browsers’ in April).
The Guardian needs the money more (in the year to the end of March 2012 it made a loss of £44.2m). But like Mail Online, its focus is currently on building as big a global web audience as it possibly can (it attracted 82m global ‘unique browsers’ in April).
The Sun goes behind a total paywall as of 1 August (joining The Times and Sunday Times).
The Independent and Mirror Group are the other major national newspaper website players and (like the Mail and Guardian) they remain completely free for the present.
It may only be a matter of time before most of the major news websites in the commercial sector adopt some form of paywall. Because on the early evidence from the Telegraph – if you can gain some subscription income whilst still attracting a mass audience for advertisers, it is looking like a no-brainer.
Despite the encouraging early signs from the Telegraph, the 20-article per month limit will lose them some readers. And because Telegraph readers are offered a free trial subscription before the taps are turned off, traffic may yet suffer a dip.
But I suspect the commercial benefits of all the data being gathered from new subscribers will outweigh the downside in terms of those who decide to take their clicks elsewhere.