Wales Online editor: Gap between print and digital revenue is shrinking, free BBC website means paywall is not viable

The editor of Wales Online has said he will not install a paywall on the award-winning website because he fears competition from BBC Wales online, which offers news content for free, would see him lose readers.

Paul Rowland, who is also editor-in-chief of Trinity Mirror South Wales was speaking to members of the Welsh Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee as part of evidence for its inquiry into the state of news journalism in Wales.

Wales Online was named website of the year at this year’s Society of Editors Regional Press Awards, and also claimed the digital award for its micro-site marking 50 years since the Aberfan disaster.

Asked why Wales Online hadn’t put up a paywall Rowland told members: “If you look at the Financial Times as an example of a paywall, that’s able to successfully operate a paywall because it has a product which is so distinct among a market, which has disposable income to spend on the product that it provides, that means that if you don’t subscribe to the Financial Times you are unable to access information that would probably be absolutely critical to your professional life.

“Now I would like to think that Wales Online is that, but we have BBC Wales and to be honest it’s my view that there would not be a sufficient number of people who were discerning enough about the fact that they preferred Wales Online to the BBC maybe that actually were we to put a paywall in front of it that they wouldn’t think: ‘Well I can get the BBC for free’.”

He said print was still the biggest revenue source for Trinity Mirror in South Wales. It publishes titles including the South Wales Echo, South Wales Evening Post, Western Mail and Wales on Sunday.

But he added: “The gap between the revenue we make from print and the revenue we make from digital is shrinking every year.”

Asked by committee members why Trinity Mirror followed a “digital-first” model despite the bulk of its revenue coming from print, Rowland said: “The key to part of our business model is to transition ourselves to a business that can survive sustainably from our digital revenues by the time those print revenues decline to the point where they are not stable for us anymore.”

He added: “Newspapers have been declining in sale and advertising revenue across the board for significantly longer than publishers have been taking the internet seriously. So that is a structural decline that started well before the advent of mainstream web publishing and has continued at more or less the same rate throughout that period.

“If we were to prioritise print on the basis that it makes more money now we would be continuing to do that until the point where that declines to a point where we didn’t have a sustainable business model and we would have built nothing to replace it.

“What we are trying to do while we still have a substantial revenue from print is create something, grow and focus on something which allows us to have a sustainable future. It’s my view we have done that really successfully. The idea that Wales online is anything other than a big success for Wales is daft really.”

Rowland said there that while it was “undeniably true” that the news landscape was changing, he considered that journalism in Wales was not at “crisis point”, although admitted it “could be stronger”.

But, Richard Gurner, editor of the Caerphilly Observer, who was also answering questions from the committee last week, said: “We are at a point where there is a [potential for a crisis if it hasn’t already arrived.

“It is all to do with funding models and changing landscape and ownership models and there is whole host of issues that are affecting the media not just in Wales but right across the country. But we have got to try and work out the solutions for Wales.”

In May Wales Online attracted an average of 403,019 unique browsers per day, according to ABC.

Last month the Welsh Assembly revealed proposals to recruit its own team of journalists because of concern that politics was going uncovered.

Picture: Senedd/Welsh Assembly

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