James Harding: Online charging is fight of our lives

Times editor James Harding pledged to “rewrite the economics of the newspaper, newsgathering and delivery business” today as he outlined how his title planned to start charging for its digital content in the spring.

Harding told the Society of Editors conference the expectation was that publisher News International would implement a subscription service for online access early next year in addition to charging less frequent readers for 24 hours access – but he dismissed the idea of micro-payments for individual articles, saying: “You have to be very careful with article-only economics. You will find yourself writing a lot more about Britney Spears.”

He said it was time for the newspaper to stop indulging in “trickery and fakery” with Audit Bureau of Circulations figures by cancelling distibution of its bulk copies and to start treating its readers better.

He said: “I think we are in the fight of our lives and we have got to be very clear what we are fighting for is reporting, we have to make sure that we put independent reporting, investigating the powerful, on an economically sustainable footing.”

Echoing the sentiments of News Corporation chairman and chief executive Rupert Murdoch, who earlier this month made legal threats against the BBC and said he could de-list from Google, Harding said The Times would confront those who “represent a serious threat to independent journalism” and that they had already had “frank” conversations with Google and the BBC.

However, he seemed to strike a more conciliatory tone by saying de-listing from Google was an “option” but the Times was looking to charge for content and find a big audience, adding; “The question is how do we find some middle ground.”

He later told Press Gazette The Times and The Sunday Times were likely to be the first News International titles to start changing for digital content and that a day’s access to The Times would cost around the same as buying the print edition – currently a weekday copy of the Times costs 90 pence.

Setbacks could occur, he added, but it was expected that all the necessary changes would have taken place and the new system would be up and running in the first half of 2010.

Harding admitted the Times had contributed to the “culture of free” by thinking that advertising alone could sustain its digital offering – but said newspapers now needed to avoid the difficulties encountered by other industries.

He told delegates: “We are going to take on the culture of free, we have seen what the culture of free has done to the music business and we believe that we cannot as a business or as a society allow that to happen to news.

“So from the spring of next year we will start charging for the digital editions of The Times. We are still working on the pricing model but my expectation is that we will charge you for the day’s paper, for a 24-hour sign up to Times Online and we will also establish a subscription price as well.

“In a sense we are ending the practice of giving away the paper…we think it is good for us and good for the business to stop indulging in the trickery and fakery of the ABCs.

“We want to focus on real sales to real customers and, incidentally, that is what advertisers want to.”

Harding said the Times wanted to improve its relationship with its loyal customers through home delivery and through its recently launched Times+ membership programme.

He said: “Historically, newspapers have treated their best customers worst and their worst customers best.

“We give the paper away to people who could not care less and we pay little or no attention to people who love it and read it every day.”

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