The long awaited sea-change in online newsprint has begun in earnest in the U.K., as two of its most popular and well-regarded broadsheets have announced paywalls. The Times and Sunday Times online will cost you from June. They're expensive too.
News International's chief exec announced the move today, noting it as a "crucial step" towards an "economically exciting" future for the news business. Twisty words, since the real issue is much more complex: These organizations are being forced to change by the dynamically evolving nature of news publishing, and advances in Net tech and Net savviness among the general population. Nevertheless, the venerable Times's they are a-changing, and the paywall isn't just being thrown up around the existing Web presence, TimesOnline.co.uk, which currently serves both papers. Instead, each edition will get its own site, and it'll be radically overhauled compared to the existing one, presumably to justify the decision to charge for access.
So what is this charge? It's expensive: one pound per day to gain ad-hoc access to both sites, or £2 for a week. That means a monthly fee is the equivalent of around $12, only slightly cheaper than the Wall Street Journal charges for its digital Kindle edition. And it raises a thorny question for the many U.K. folk who currently enjoy the free website, and maybe buy a Times or two during the week or get it delivered regularly by the paperboy: Will it be worth paying for both the physical edition and the newly refreshed online one? For one, the online copy actually costs less to read than a paper-and-ink one, and this is doubly true for the many millions of ex-pat Brits who enjoy an occasional Times--where I live, a single Sunday Times can cost upwards of €4, some of which is excused by the speediness with which it's distributed around the World. But NI will have a hard job persuading the average Brit at home to cough up twice, which could lead to some serious revenue dips.
Still, this strategy is partly a calculated risk, and it's less of one than "just throwing away our journalism and giving it away" online, according to the Times editor James Harding. The rest of the U.K. newsprint industry is in turmoil too. News Corp, worried about the revenue loss from news aggregators, has just announced it's pulling its content (including the Times') from LexisNexis, in keeping with the suspicions of news mogul Rupert Murdoch. Meanwhile, Times competitor the Guardian is seeing its circulation drop below 300,000 recently, and has gone through round after round of layoffs after dramatic restructuring that brought its web and print production systems into a single entity. But the Guardian's attempts at going digital have seen the paper dipping too far into capital, even while it Web site's now generating revenues of its own, and it's likely that the move by News International will prompt the Guardian to reconsider a paywall strategy.
Update: PaidContent.co.uk has somehow secured an exclusive first peek at the sort of look and feel the refreshed Times Web sites will have on their May relaunch. The result will look oddly familiar to Times readers, because unlike the current TimesOnline design, the new ones look like...well, the Times and the Sunday Times. It seems that the new digital versions will be extraordinarily similar to the print ones, though we can assume there'll be some extra cleverness in the form of animations, pop-ups and video embeds.
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