Times are a-charging, for better or for worse

Tony Glover: Rupert Murdoch's move to ask readers to pay for access to the websites of his most prestigious UK titles is bold but it could prove counterproductive.

News Corp is putting its UK quality papers behind a pay wall.
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A generation ago, the NewsCorp chief executive Rupert Murdoch revolutionised British journalism, for better or worse. Now he intends to do the same for global online journalism. Despite conventional internet wisdom that says people browsing the web are extremely reluctant to pay for news content, readers will soon start having to pay to access online versions of two famous British newspapers: The Times and The Sunday Times.

Even The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times allow readers unrestricted free access to much of their sites. Mr Murdoch is not only hiding all the online content behind a paywall, he is also blocking Google from aggregating any of the news from the websites. "We are betting people will be prepared to pay for the high-quality content we offer. We believe there's a logical disconnect between charging for the printed version of the paper and giving that content and more away free online," says Tristan Davies, The Sunday Times's executive online editor.

"We believe a known, paying audience is more valuable to advertisers than millions of anonymous, drive-by eyeballs." But some analysts believe Mr Murdoch and his staff face a formidable task in trying to bring the economics of the newspaper industry to the internet. "The key question is how can The Times and The Sunday Times differentiate themselves from the existing ocean of freely available content? Charging consumers for aggregating news is no good in an era where sites such as Google offer comprehensive aggregation services for free," says Adrian Drury, a principal analyst at the researcher Ovum. "The lesson is that customers so far seem unwilling to pay a premium for news stories. It is very difficult to differentiate a news product."

One possible way to do so would be to provide the reading public with hard-hitting news stories that are not available elsewhere - something The Sunday Times, in particular, was once extremely good at. "Can a model be found for creating and, more crucially, paying for the kind of investigative journalism and exclusive stories that, for instance, made the reputation of the old Sunday Times Insight team under Harold Evans in the 1960s and 1970s?" says Mr Drury.

In the 1980s, Mr Murdoch's critics, of which there were many, accused him of taking newspapers such as The Sunday Times, The Times and The Sun irretrievably downmarket. A revered institution under the editorship of Evans, The Sunday Times was opened up to a much broader readership under Mr Murdoch's protege, Andrew Neil. Bland but advertisement-filled supplements and "lifestyle" columns soon replaced hard-hitting investigative journalism and insightful political commentary.

The Sunday Times and its sister paper The Times may now have to try to emulate past legendary successes such as the exposure of Kim Philby, a high-ranking British intelligence officer, as a Soviet spy and its successful fight to secure justice for hundreds of severely disabled British children whose mothers, when pregnant, had taken a drug called thalidomide designed to prevent morning sickness that caused terrible birth defects.

Mr Davies, however, claims The Sunday Times Insight team continues to research exclusive stories. But he also thinks the internet presents newspapers with far greater opportunities than traditional printing presses offered his Fleet Street forebears. He believes, for instance, the new generation of mobile devices such as the Apple iPad will help create a new type of loyal newspaper readership. "You find me at my desk working on an iPad app for The Sunday Times. We believe that tablet devices such as the iPad offer a fantastic online newspaper experience. We are also tailoring our content for smartphones," Mr Davies says.

He also predicts the internet will enable more national newspaper brands to attract new readers worldwide. "For us, digital publishing is going global. In terms of geographical differentiation, we wouldn't rule out offering specialised content to locations such as the Middle East though there are no plans to do so yet. We will be offering our readers in Ireland content from our Irish editions in due course" he says.

Mr Davies also believes The Sunday Times will be able to differentiate itself through its supplements and by using video to allow readers to see the editorial workings of the paper. "At a basic level, news is available everywhere. But the quality of reporting and level of expertise and analysis offered by The Times and The Sunday Times is not. In addition to news coverage, we have our supplements which provide unique cultural coverage. We also offer rich video content online - readers can go behind the scenes of Style fashion shoots for example, or watch Michael Frith at work in his studio - and access to our roster of writers," he says.

But it is by no means certain that this offering will be sufficient to draw paying customers on to the website. "At the moment, The Times and The Sunday Times are not making much money out of all their online readers. The danger with their new strategy is that they may lose the online readers they already have without generating new ones," says Mr Drury. The online barriers facing The Times and The Sunday Times are truly daunting. A survey by Entertainment Media Research found that 91 per cent of 1,592 people surveyed said they would be unwilling to pay the £1 (Dh5.44) a day or £2 per week that Mr Murdoch is asking to access both The Times and The Sunday Times's websites. And, according to Ovum, while Facebook users spend on average90 minutes on the site, users of sites such as The Times generally spend around 15 seconds skimming the headlines.

"The big question is whether News Corp is prepared to bet on the fact that The Times and Sunday Times brands and the bylines of their leading journalists are strong enough to make people pay for only content. It is a very risky gamble," says Mr Drury. business@thenational.ae