This summer’s World Cup is likely to be the first real test of whether UK internet users will pay to read journalists’ copy, as Times Newspapers implements a new "tiered access strategy" to charge for online content.
Under the company’s scheme, all users will be asked to pay a subscription if they want access to a new set of "premium channels" – one of which will comprise match reports, news and features from the tournament in Japan and South Korea in June – and overseas users will have to pay for online editions of The Times and The Sunday Times.
The move will be watched with interest by other national titles, including The Daily Telegraph, which already charges for its crossword, and The Guardian. Pearson has said that FT.com will introduce a fee for parts of its site later this year, but Times Online looks like being the first to include mainstream editorial content in a charging policy.
The site introduced a charge for its online crossword and its archive service at the end of last year and now feels sufficiently confident that it can extend the principle to other areas of its online enterprise. Digital director Annelies van den Belt says 20 per cent of those who had used the online crossword before charging was introduced are now paying the £10 subscription – more than twice as many as she had expected.
As well as a World Cup channel, the premium channels will include an enhanced Crossword Club channel and a new channel featuring the paper’s law reports. Other premium channels are expected to be added.
The site will still continue to offer free content on its 10 "free-to-air" channels which include news, business, sport, personal finance and travel. Overseas users – who account for 45 per cent of the site’s traffic – will still have access to these, but by the summer they will have to pay a subscription to receive the full daily content of the newspaper. No subscription prices have yet been set.
Editorial director Keith Blackmore said he believed Japan and Korea’s time zones make the idea of charging for World Cup content particularly compelling. With matches being played early in the morning UK time, the newspaper won’t be able to carry match reports until around 18 hours after the event.
For the same reason, he added, the number of people who have registered on the site to access Times reports on last week’s cricket test series in New Zealand had been very encouraging.
"The free ride is over and the days of free content have gone," said Times Newspapers general manager Paul Hayes. "We remain unimpressed by business models that will not deliver a return on our investments. Charging for content is not a new idea – newspaper publishers have been doing it for 200 years."
After losing a number staff in cutbacks last October, Times Online now has an editorial team of around 25. Staff are hopeful that new Times editor Robert Thomson’s enthusiasm for the internet will mean that number will grow in the summer.
By Ian Reeves