UPDATE: I've just been reminded that on the night the Times paywall launched I put on a panel discussion in my then role as in-house journalist / event producer at the Frontline Club. Thankfully, due to club founder Vaughan Smith's investments in video tech (and bandwidth!) you can watch it in full here.
The panelists are the then Times digital director Gurtej Sandhu, one of the architects of the whole paywall project; Mary-Beth Christie of the FT and Ewan MacLeod, then of Mobile Industry Review. The chair was Steve Hewlett and it was a fascinating debate. It's amazing to hear how perceptions and ideas have changed since 2010.
Original post: Three years on exactly from launching its trailblazing digital subscription strategy, The Times and The Sunday Times have now amassed a total of 140,000 paying digital subscribers, "mainly on the tablet". Does this mean paywalls definitely work or, as with everything in the media business, is there much more to it than that?
The papers, published by News UK - rebranded from News International as part of News Corp's split - now have more paying customers than they did on 2 July 2010, which is regarded by News UK executives as the true marker of success.
The Times titles added 13,000 new subscribers in the first half of 2013, implying a monthly acquisition rate of 2,100, although the natural churn rate will mean the real net subscribers growth figure is lower. (One wonders what affect the technical issues with the combined iPad app will have on renewals).
Paid content rhetoric
News UK CEO Mike Darcey, who knows the subscription game inside out from his 15 years at BSkyB, told the Times CEO Summit on Tuesday that the company had no time for free online media (via Guardian):
This reach doesn't generate any meaningful revenue, and the pursuit of it undermines the piece of the business that does make money. If your purpose contemplates still being here in five to 10 years' time, then the choice seems clear: it is better to sacrifice reach and preserve sustainable profitability.
This is a return to the kind of tub-thumping "content isn't free" rhetoric that surrounded the 2010 paywall launch. On the fall in traffic from gating all online traffic he said:
What have we really lost? A long tail of passing trade, many from overseas, many popping in for only one article, referred by Google or a social media link, not even aware they are on a Times or a Sun website, wholly anonymous.
Is it working?
As I wrote on "The science of subscriptions" in December, you only reach profit through subscriptions when you've deducted the cost of acquiring and retaining users. Three years on, The Times should be starting to see the benefits of their toil now.
But it's not all plain sailing.
Mike Darcey may be sceptical about advertising-funded websites, but MailOnline makes a small profit and is on course to make £45 million this year, thanks to its six million browsers a day. Conversely, Times Newspapers Ltd lost £28.7 million for the year to July 1, on turnover of £361 million.
That 20 jobs are to go from the Times shows the costbase still isn't quite right. And the age of being subsidised by other parts of the News Corp empire is now over, as editor-in-chief John Witherow put it to staff last month:
For several years now, Times Newspapers has been losing money. The company has tolerated this because it could use profits from elsewhere in News Corp to pay for our papers and because the proprietor has a passion for newspapers.
I fear that era of being subsidised is coming to an end. The separation of the two companies means that the newspapers will form a bigger and more exposed element in the new News Corp.
The digital subscription model is not a solution to those existential problems. To convince people to "pay for news" does not remove a £28 million loss overnight or even in five years.
Plus, in reality, despite all the "content matters" pontification, many people are enticed into signing up thanks to the generous freebies, such as the Times+ membership club and a Google Nexus 7 tablet for just £50:
Far apart from the tired old "paywalls" debate, this is really about repositioning: News UK is focused on increasing its recurring, stable revenue from loyal audiences and decreasing its reliance on advertising. The Sun's launch of paid-for mobile football highlights this summer is the next step in that process.
To go from zero to 140,000 digital customers is a significant achievement and was made in the face of vocal opposition and a tempestuous political atmosphere for the company. The company now has lifetime value and renewable revenue attached to its digital customers where previously it had none.