Times paywall numbers: Rupert Murdoch's long game could yet pay off

At first glance the first official reader figures for the The Times and Sunday Times’ paywalled websites do not look great.

Around 50,000 readers have signed up to become monthly subscribers of the websites, iPad editions and Kindle editions (and that figure also includes corporate subscribers). That’s just over 12,000 a month.

News International has lumped in all the pay-as-you go sales which weren’t renewed to come up with a more eye-catching 105,000 cumulative total: you can read the NI press release here.

The figures seem disappointing to me, especially compared with the more than 20 million unique users a month who used to visit the free-to-air Times Online website. But then again as a long-game strategy perhaps this could still pay off.

Taking a very ‘glass is half full’ view of the figures – at the current rate of growth the websites could have 1.2m subscribers in 10 years time, more than enough to replace departing print readers.

While recent year-on-year print circulation declines are horrendous for The Times (down 14.8 per cent) and Sunday Times (down 9.5 per cent), these reflect the axing of bulk give-aways. The picture over the last few months has been a lot more stable.

In June The Times had 503,642 print sales and the Sunday Times had 1,085,724. By September The Times had dropped to 486,868 and the Sunday Times was actually slightly up to 1,091,869.

So looking at the combined print and online totals both The Times and Sunday Times appear to have increase their paying readerships over the last four months. Not a bad result at all.

This 50,000 figure is way below some of the wild estimates put out by web metrics companies over the last few months. But taken in the round it could signal a news business that has a future.

This is still very early days for Operation Paywall and, perhaps surprisingly for a 79-year-old, I think Rupert Murdoch is playing the long game on this one.

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