The great paywall debate: who's right?

As the Times prepares to disappear behind a paywall, ex-Times man Dan Sabbagh debates the pros and cons.

by Dan Sabbagh
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Next week the Times and Sunday Times will show off redesigned websites that the titles’ publisher hopes will look so good that readers will be willing to pay £2 a week to read them online. Rupert Murdoch’s high risk move represents, in the words of Sunday Times editor John Witherow, 'a huge challenge... something of a gamble'. And nothing less than the future of the newspaper business is at stake.

Witherow’s caution stems from the fact he knows that it is by no means certain a public, long used to consuming media on the internet for free, will on this occasion be prepared to pay. Some rival newspapers, not least the Daily Mail and the Guardian, are sure the scheme will not work. This week Witherow debated with Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, over who was right, in a programme recorded for Radio 4’s Media Show.

Early on Witherow conceded the Sunday Times would 'easily' lose 90% of its existing online audience. But he argued the quality of the as-yet-unseen product, the need to have a business model to pay journalists, and the relatively modest price would make it a success.

Rusbridger warned that the Times and the Sunday Times were at risk of cutting themselves off from the online conversation; of becoming, in short, less relevant. With the Guardian already generating nearly £40m of online advertising, and with revenues up by 100% this year, Rusbridger said the existing free-to-read model was already proving to be a viable business strategy.

Yet, so high are the stakes that the debate between the two men was punctuated not by rancour but by mere gentle disagreement. The Guardian’s editor conceded that if the Times titles made a success of charging, then he would change his plan. 'You’d be crazy to be fundamentalist about this,' he said.

And as his comments on the ‘gamble’ involved made clear, Witherow knows there is no automatic reason as to why Times or Sunday Times readers will sign up in large numbers online. Although he admitted he would be disappointed if only 50,000 or 60,000 did.

Nevertheless, with so much in doubt, neither editor wanted to be backed into a corner with overconfident predictions. As Rusbridger said, 'the truth is that nobody knows' whether online charging will work or not. In the coming weeks, we shall find out.

Dan Sabbagh was media editor of the Times for five years until 2009. He now runs Beehive City, a media news site. In our June issue, he writes exclusively for MT on the print industry's online evolution.

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The great paywall debate: who's right?

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