When even MailOnline is considering charging for some form of online access, perhaps making some cash from its 6.2 million visitors a day through sports clips and tablet access, you know there’s a turning point ahead.
But can the UK’s thousands of local papers repeat the trick? Are local newspaper sites unique enough to charge for?
Regional media bosses certainly hope so. Ashley Highfield, speaking last week at an event in Glasgow said: “If I was stood here just six months ago I would have said the future for our online business was majoritively advertising-based. I still believe that but it’s fascinating to see the changes just in the last few months.
“In the UK we’ve got the Telegraph and The Sun and that’s something we’re going to trial – the lucky thing of having 250 titles is that you can try different models and I don’t think it will be one size fits all.
“With some titles we’ll be able to have a stronger paywall, in others we may stop short of charging at all and just increase registrations, in others it will stay exactly as it is.”
Watch an edited clip of that speech here:
For Highfield, video is the a key way to differentiate: “If every one of our journalists shoots one piece of video a week, this year we’ll have 85,000. I think video is going to become an increasingly central part of our content.”
And he’s not alone: Robin Burgess, CEO of Carlisle’s CN Group, declared at a Society of Editors meeting last week that he was “fairly certain” that his titles would charge for access in future: “For some time I have thought that we can’t continue giving our content away. The reader must pay.
At Gannett, the giant US newspaper publisher and owner of the UK’s Newsquest, circulation revenue was up 17 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, thanks to digital payment systems.
Execution and delivery challenges
We’ve been down this road before. In 2009 JP trialled paywalls on six of its sites – companion sites to smaller weekly papers, not the larger daily papers such as Yorkshire Post. Readers were asked to pay £5 a month to see some premium articles, an offer that was taken up by a pool of readers barely into double digits.
But it didn’t work because people won’t pay for content online – it flopped because it was badly executed, as some argued at the time.
As FT.com MD Rob Grimshaw put it to us this week, “just because you open a shop doesn’t mean you are a great retailer. You are effectively entering a new kind of business, one that publishers aren’t familiar with, and you have to learn the craft.
Other points to note for anyone thinking of trying this at home:
— Understand pricing and value – they are not the same thing. The overall package and how you communicate why it’s worth buying is key.
— Think long-term: Johnston Press might be proud of its profit margin ( on an EBITDA basis running at 19.3 percent today) but it has to have foresight if it wants to do subs. It can only reap the benefit of a sub once the cost of acquisition has been paid off – as I argue here. There are no overnight subscription successes.
— It starts and ends with good products: If publishers can’t invest in websites and mobile products that work and are nice to use, both from an internal CMS and user perspective, there is no hope. I’m reminded of one JP editor who told me when Highfield joined that getting the CMS right was his “number one biggest priority”.
In theory, local and regional sites are the definition of unique journalism. Publishers moan about the BBC – but there are hundreds of towns in the UK without full-time reporters working for Aunty. The BBC is going through its own cost-cutting bonanza too – those plans to spend £68 million on regional video news, feel like a long time ago.
But the thing to remember is that people will pay for digital content and digital products. And if newspapers can’t get it right now, with the reach, brand and resources they still have, they have no one to blame but themselves.