Should the Guardian consider a paywall too?


8:45 am - July 27th 2011

by Sunny Hundal    


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Last year, I revealed that the Guardian newspaper was considering an exclusive ‘members club’ (an idea that doesn’t seem to have been pursued vigorously) to raise revenue. At the time, senior executive Emily Bell told Liberal Conspiracy:

No – we are not contemplating a pay wall, nor as far as I’m concerned would we ever….they are a stupid idea in that they restrict audiences for largely replicable content. Murdoch no doubt will find this out – even rudimentary maths suggests he will struggle with a completely free model to meet advertising revenue levels across the NI offerings.

But I suspect this position may be about to soften, and not just because Emily Bell has left.

While News International’s experiment at a paywall does not seem to have worked, the New York Times has had much more success.

New York Magazine ran a feature this week that revealed:

It will take years for the ultimate wisdom of the [New York] Times’ strategy to be apparent, but the company’s second-quarter-earnings report proves that its digital-subscription plan has thus far been an enormous success. The internal projections have been closely held, but several people have confirmed that the goal was to amass 300,000 online subscribers within a year of launch. On Thursday, the company announced that after just four months, 224,000 users were paying for access to the paper’s website.

Combined with the 57,000 Kindle and Nook readers who were paying for subscriptions and the roughly 100,000 users whose digital access was sponsored by Ford’s Lincoln division, that meant the paper had monetized close to 400,000 online users. (Another 756,000 print subscribers have registered their accounts on the [New York] Times’ website.)

Felix Salmon at Reuters estimates this to mean around an extra $100 million a year. That is however a small percentage of the NYT’s annual $2 billion revenue.

The New York Times’ paywall “is working” concludes Salmon.

I’m particularly glad that the NYT has proven that a very porous paywall can work — one in which just about anybody online can read just about any NYT article for free very easily. The media business has never been about denying access to people who want to read your publication, but the paywalls at News Corp, as well as the one at the FT, are based around that model. The NYT, by contrast, has proven that people will pay even if the paywall is extremely porous.

Given that the Guardian faces a similar cash-flow crisis, isn’t it time the newspaper also slaughtered this sacred cow and adopted a hybrid NYT-style paywall model?

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


1. Matthew Evans

Maybe. But one of the things which has greatly weakened Murdoch is putting The Times behind a paywall. That has meant it has not been abke to have any real influence on the coverage of the Murdoch crisis because very few people see it.

So why doesn’t Liberal Conspiracy introduce a paywall? That ad before the comments can’t be paying the bills, after all.

Be difficult for a publication that spoke so ideologically about the inherent wrongness of a paywall to make a u-turn now!

I believe that we are about to see a huge increase in the power of targeted advertising, and maintaining a well profiled and vast readership will reap dividends soon enough. For example, check out this article on the Gamification of news http://bit.ly/ncPwF1

Also, we are also in the early days of tablet computing – something that is bound to open up a range of premium commercial opportunities. Although a very porous paywall would generate more revenue now, losing readers would make them suffer long term.

They should persevere with the idea of a premium paid-for service.

Something like £50 a year for access to

All online content (which would remain free to everyone)
Crosswords (They tried making this paid for a while but stopped)
Guardian Soulmates
Guardian Android/Apple aps
Some kind of Guardian Guide listings App (shouldn’t be too hard to cook up, and would actually be dead useful)
And maybe a little book of vouchers for 10 or so print copies of the Guardian so that you can pick up a paper copy when that suits you.

The ability to make money from online subscriptions seems to me to depend upon how unique the service being offered is- so the FT and WSJ can do it successfully because they have a unique audience in the financial sector. The NYT is probably the biggest global brand in Newspapers.

I’m not sure whether the Guardian is unique enough to entice people to pay for it.

No to paywall.

The problem they all have is lack of imagination, they are far too busy watching others when they should look to innovate. There is a model for them to adopt and it is not this one.

In an online world seeking to provide disruptive solutions, its time they tried to do the same.

The only thing I’d pay for is Martin Rowson’s cartoons, and only then if they were a decent size

“the NYT has proven that a very porous paywall can work — one in which just about anybody online can read just about any NYT article for free very easily”

Of course, a paper newspaper is a “porous paywall” – you can read a copy bought by a colleague, or one that someone has left on the train. It is even possible to read one in the newsagent, if you are cheeky enough! People who want to read the newspaper pay for it, casual readers can avoid paying for it, but from the newspaper’s point of view the casual reader is a potential paying customer.

The problem with the Times paywall is that they have lost the casual readers. They have no trials and so new readers cannot get used to the content with a potential to become a subscriber. This means that the Times have lost their chance of increasing the number of subscribers.

Incidentally, the FT is also a “porous firewall”.

Someone somewhere (I can’t remember who) suggested that a solution might be to create a system for making micro-payments online.

Then the reader could be charged say 2-5p to read an online newspaper article. The psychology of spending a few pence per article is very different from a costly monthly or yearly subscription, and more people might be inclined to do it.

Worth considering perhaps.

I don’t get it – they already have through their iPhone app

The issue I suspect is the phrase “replicable content”. The NYT is arguably the best English language newspaper in the world. If you’re going to have one subscription then that will be the one. I wouldn’t necessarily assume that others will match their performance.

Obviously the problem is that proper journalism is expensive and few wish to pay for it. The problem is somewhat circular though. Hackgate has brought wider attention to the work of Nick Davis and in particular the startling statistic that only 12% of British newspaper content is original reporting. I doubt there will be many willing to pay for such thin gruel.

Is the Guardian readership likely to be happy about a paywall? Stereotypically, no, but not sure if that is actually a useful judgement.

The Independent always exists to try and siphon off Guardian readers however, so the decision has to be made as to what would happen on this basis, not on a comparison with other, different, situations.

Jimmy: kudos for using Davies and Hackgate as an example of how the Grauniad *isn’t* worth paying for. For my next trick, I’m going to use the fact that objects fall to the ground to disprove the law of gravity.

john b

Davies is worth paying for. There’s just not enough of it.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Should the Guardian now consider a paywall too? http://bit.ly/poeKHC

  2. James Diamond

    Don't tell them, but I would happily pay. RT @libcon: Should the Guardian now consider a paywall too? http://bit.ly/poeKHC

  3. Jonathan Davis

    Should the Guardian now consider a paywall too? http://bit.ly/poeKHC

  4. sunny hundal

    Should the Guardian now consider a paywall? I think it's time to slaughter this sacred cow http://bit.ly/poeKHC

  5. david munk

    Should the Guardian now consider a paywall? I think it's time to slaughter this sacred cow http://bit.ly/poeKHC

  6. Perry Bonewell

    As long as it won't damage campaigns like #hackgate RT @RichardJMurphy: @sunny_hundal: Guardian consider a paywall? http://bit.ly/poeKHC

  7. The White Review

    Should the Guardian now consider a paywall too? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/bxrkub3 via @libcon

  8. Howard Male

    Paywall facts: The New Yorker’s target: 300,000 online subscribers within a year. 224,000 achieved in just 4 months. http://t.co/tsrelXl

  9. TP recommends...

    Should the Guardian follow the New York Times behind a paywall? @sunny_hundal thinks they might http://bit.ly/nQhJY9

  10. sunny hundal

    Should the Guardian now consider a paywall too? http://bit.ly/poeKHC

  11. Siân Herbert

    RT @sunny_hundal: Should the #Guardian now consider a #paywall too? http://bit.ly/poeKHC @nytimes

  12. dm

    Interesting post. Should the Guardian now consider a paywall too? http://t.co/G2B0l52 via @libcon #PayWall

  13. Formandcue

    Should the Guardian now consider a paywall too? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/bxrkub3 via @libcon

  14. sunny hundal

    What do you reckon @emilybell? Should Guardian consider NYT style paywall given their success? http://t.co/ruTNriy

  15. David McMillan

    What do you reckon @emilybell? Should Guardian consider NYT style paywall given their success? http://t.co/ruTNriy

  16. Jim

    Putting a left wing rag behind a "Pay"wall, yeah that'll work. http://bit.ly/ncgSHV

  17. Leon Green

    Should the Guardian now consider a paywall too? http://bit.ly/poeKHC

  18. Iain Wood

    Should the Guardian consider a paywall too? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/6gD2O6m via @libcon

  19. Exclusive: The Guardian is looking for a paywall model | Liberal Conspiracy

    […] were looking at ‘exclusive clubs’ to generate new revenue, its executive Emily Bell told me: No – we are not contemplating a pay wall, nor as far as I’m concerned would we ever….they […]





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