Above: The future of paid for online news? The Times iPad app
Britain's media industry has been desperate to find out how many people have paid for online access to The Times and Sunday Times since News International installed its paywall in July. Ni finally issued figures this week, declaring that it had sold 105,000 'digital products' since July.
Media commentators have had a field day with the data. The Financial Times reported that experts doubted the figures, claiming they were vague or even an example of 'chicanery'. Robert Andrews at www.paidcontent.co.uk suggests that just 0.25% of Times Online readers have converted to paid subscribers (rather than pay-per-day customers).
My view? I don't think we can read anything into these figures. We simply don't know enough to decide how well News International is doing. That 105,000 includes people on the introductory £1 for a month offer. It presumably includes people who have cancelled their subscription. Above all, it's just four months since NI launched the first paywall at a major British mainstream, mass market news website. NI will experiment with new offers, new products and new payment methods. It has enormous marketing clout. It will make this work.
The critics suggest a host of reasons why the NI experiment won't succeed. They argue that NI is bound to fail while rival news sites such as the BBC, the Guardian and Daily Telegraph remain free. They suggest that NI is breaking a fundamental rule of the web: that charging for content is wrong. And they point out that the Times and Sunday Times have cut themselves off from online and social media communities - who's going to tweet links to stories that are locked behind a paywall? Oh, and many see Rupert Murdoch as the devil, and while they may have been happy to accept his content for free, they won't pay for it.
I don't accept the philosophical argument that all online content should be free. Why? If you value something, why wouldn't you want to pay for it? I am happy to pay for the BBC through the licence fee because I value its content and don't want that content to be scarred by advertising. I take the same view of online news. Good journalism costs money. True, I'm very happy if news organisations are happy to give it away for free. But I doubt this is sustainable as print sales fall and a generation grows up with the idea that online is the place to go for news.
I started this post with a screenshot of the Times iPad edition. This might just show show the way to make paid for content work. (I recognise I was sceptical about this when the iPad was announced in January, but I might be wrong.) I'm not a natural Times reader, but I've thoroughly enjoyed the iPad edition this week after discovering that my online subscription includes the iPad app content. (I was sure it was separate.) The best thing is that I can download the day"s paper and then read it all offline, such as at my parents', or on a flight to San Francisco. The app isn't perfect - navigation is confusing and inconsistent - but overall I love the Times on the iPad. I'd happily pay extra on top of my Guardian print subscription to get an iPad issue. (And for the Media Talk and Tech Weekly podcasts if the Guardian decided to charge for them.)
For me, that's the secret to paid content success. Experiment to find out what hits the spot for various customer segments. For some regular print readers, it may be adding an iPad edition for an extra £5 a month. For some online customers, it might be occasional print editions for an extra sum. News International seems to think culture is the only way to lure subscribers. I'm not a complete philistine, but it does nothing for me! Content, not culture, is king.
Disclosure: I am head of PR for PayPal UK. PayPal has pioneered payment services for digital goods, including online news. The Financial Times announced on 27 October that it was working with PayPal to further drive online subscription growth.