“We think paywalls are essential, because we think giving away content for free, particularly if consumers value that content, makes no sense. Consumers have to pay for content they value.”
Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP
The Herald and Sunday Herald are two of Scotland’s leading quality news outlets but when it comes to turning a profit, they are at the mercy of the same dire advertising market and readership trends facing every other news group in Europe and the United States.
So the announcement that the heraldscotland.com site, which integrates content from the two titles, is to go behind a paywall was hardly surprising.
In the dim and distant past (well, two-and-a-half years ago), I freelanced at the Herald and Sunday Herald, both as a print reporter and a multimedia journalist. They’re good papers, with a small but loyal readership, and I retain a fondness for the ability of their (integrated) editorial and production staff to put out solid (and in the case of the Sunday Herald, well-designed) papers on a string-and-buttons budget.
The new partial paywall, based on the metered access model most prominently (and contentiously) employed by the New York Times, will allow users free access to ten articles over a four-week period followed by charges for further usage: £1 for the initial month then £2.99 for each month thereafter. Print subscribers will enjoy free access.
But will it work?
The Times‘s paywall has defied many of its critics to become a subscription success, with upwards of 100,000 users paying £2 every week to get their fix of the daily title and its sister title, the Sunday Times. Research shows that the site – thetimes.co.uk – lags at the bottom of the league table for social media links. A ten-week Searchmetrics study found that the free-access guardian.co.uk enjoyed 2,587,258 links per week to its content on Twitter and Facebook, whereas thetimes.co.uk managed a paltry 256. Still, the Times has never made a profit for News International and the estimated £10.4million annual haul from subscriptions, while decidedly modest, is a fair exchange for loss of social media clout. Worst of all, content doesn’t appear in search engine results. However, some commentators have argued that News International’s strategy is to build relationships with an elite customer base, gathering valuable marketing data which can then be deployed profitably elsewhere within News Corporation.
The modest success of the Times‘s subscription model is thanks to the site’s effective marketing as a niche consumer product (foreign news, court and social reporting, business analysis) and a distinctive platform for elite discourses (CommentCentral). The user is paying for high-end content, industry-leading information, and the social capital accrued through membership of a community of leading newsmakers, policymakers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs. Put simply, you subscribe to thetimes.co.uk because you are the sort of person who subscribes to thetimes.co.uk.
The Herald‘s USP is more difficult to ascertain. While heraldscotland.com boasts an impressive, if politically monochromatic, rollcall of writers – Ian Bell, Ruth Wishart, Iain Macwhirter – it is unclear if their talents will be enough to convince people to part with their money. Of course, there is the possibility that the site will become a significantly different product from its present form. Less reliance on PA, more ‘written’ news pieces, exclusive interviews, specialisation in one area (like sports commentary, financial analysis, or arts and entertainment), more and better quality video content. All of these would be welcome and could help heraldscotland.com craft a niche in Scottish digital media – a platform for in-depth quality journalism and opinion with exclusive content crafted to the preferences of key demographic profiles.
I am a digital optimist and believe newspapers can and must thrive in the new media age. But success requires targeted evidence-led investment, the abandoning of outmoded thinking, and recognition that digital-first strategies are not commercialist barbarism but key to ensuring the survival – and, ideally, the thriving – of journalism and current affairs writing in the 21st century.
Paywalls are no panacea; many argue they aren’t even a sticking plaster. Still, they are a feasible first step to making journalism profitable. Sir Martin is right: giving away news for free is commercial lunacy, akin to Starbucks handing out lattes for free then wondering why sales are down. The New York Times‘s paywall has proved profitable. If done right, the Herald‘s paywall could – on a much smaller scale – prove financially beneficial too, thus helping to secure the future of an historic Scottish media institution that deserves to survive and flourish.
To butcher CP Scott, ‘Comment is free, but a sustainable business model is sacred’.