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The Times Online Pay-Wall Mistake


Last April I reported on The Times and The Sunday Times implementing a pay-wall for their news articles and online content that was once free. I decided I’d allow a few months to pass in order to get an accurate read on whether or not the new pay-wall was successful or an abysmal failure. When I first reported on the story, I had a few preconceived notions concerning how the pay-wall would eventually perform. My initial reaction to the idea of paying for something you can get for free somewhere else didn’t necessarily fill me with confidence in regards to The Times business venture. At least for now, it seems my conjecture was right.

Recent reports from online blog Techdirt have suggested that the new format has been a failure while the Independent is reporting it’s possible that only around four people at News International, The Times parent company, are privy to the official subscription information. If official subscription information isn’t available to the public, what then constitutes a failure? 

As The Times also attempt to decipher that little riddle, and while former readers boycott the pay-wall with their wallets, it should be known that not only readers hate the idea of the pay-to-read format. Queuing up in the complaint line behind the readers are advertisers, publicists and even the journalists who write for The Times.

For the community still associated with The Times online, it seems a vicious cycle has naturally arisen post pay-wall. If readers refuse to pay for what the journalists write, then traffic ultimately decreases. When traffic decreases, businesses who advertise on the site receive less clicks to their site resulting in lower interest to their business. Having spent the last three years in the advertising industry myself while two of those years have been in a recession, let me be the first to tell you how quickly businesses pull their ad spending if they aren’t receiving a healthy return on their investment.

Oddly enough, a new participant in the vicious cycle of The Times failure has emerged during the past few months. Publicists and PR people are keeping their breaking news stories away from The Times due to the fact that the stories appearing on The Times aren’t readily available via search engines. With the pay-wall up and running, search engines such as Google cannot pick up the story headlines of Times articles and match them up with specific keywords the individual searching for the story has typed in.

Simply stated, publicists are keeping their sources away from Times reporters and are giving story leads to other publications where the story will actually be seen by readers. None of the above bodes well for The Times.

In related news, The Times Online weekly podcast TheGame is still available for free in the iTunes store. For readers of EPL Talk new to football, The Times boasts some of the best writers in the UK including, but not limited to, Patrick Barclay, Oliver Kay, Gabriele Marcotti and more.

Regardless of your thoughts on Rupert Murdoch’s pay-wall, it seems to be failing. In this day in age when just about anyone can set up a free blog and post their brilliant or horrible thoughts on football and the culture and news surrounding it, the major papers in the UK need to be seen as professional source material for the masses to consume and not be hidden behind some lame pay-wall destined to fail. 

Marcotti’s, Barclay’s and the other journalist’s work should be available for all to read and discuss. Because of the limited audience now viewing articles on The Times, football fans are missing out on some unique voices. Yet until Murdoch wakes up and realizes his mistakes, he’ll have a floundering online news site and some very talented writers whose voices have gone quiet.

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  1. David Staples

    October 15, 2010 at 5:56 am

    “Good reporting doesn’t happen for free. You shouldn’t get it for free. ”

    I don’t want to read the printed version of Murdoch’s rags. I *might* read the online version if it were free but I won’t, under any circumstances, pay for it.

    Capitalism gives the consumer the ultimate choice between paying or not paying for something. Many have made their choice with regard to Murdoch’s rags.

    Most of the stuff Murdoch’s rags churn out is sourced from places like Reuters anyway. Why not just go there? True there’s “original” content such as the columnists like Jeremy Clarkson and other opinionated hacks, but, as the internet is brimming over with ill-informed whining which is available for free, who needs ’em?

  2. CaptainJohnStrong

    October 10, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    I used to blog almost daily when Timesonline was free and on a few occasions one particular writer of the daily article sent me a couple of personal emails to my home email address.

    When the paywall was raised I stopped blogging with the Times and went elsewhere, but out of interest and curiosity, I recently sent the article writer an email saying how mush I missed blogging on his/her blog.

    The writer replied with a veiled comment that he/she was “studying his/her options” which I understand to mean that he/she is looking for another job and might well leave the Times.

    Clearly a writer needs a large public and a writer’s success on a blog is the number of hits and replies. In this case I can well understand that the writer is seeing his/her professional life going down the drain.

    If good writers start to abandon the Times it will be a vicious circle for dear Rupert as more and more people decide it’s not worth paying for and advertisers see fewer and fewer hits.

  3. Jim Willetts

    September 13, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Someone needs to devote some time and effort into sorting out micropayments. I wouldn’t begrudge up to 5p for an article which looks interesting, but £1 just strikes me as too much. I know there are problems with such small transfers of money, but crack this and you’ve got a way of paying for the web – 0.01p for a lot of websites and I wouldn’t think twice about it. 10p a month for facebook? Probably worth it, I’d say.

  4. sydneymike

    September 9, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Although I will confess to a certain distaste for the Dirty Digger and his grubby empire. This, remeber, is the man who said “Nobody ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the ordinary citizen”. Hardly an impassione cry for quality journalism. And my friends in New York are complaining that even the WSJ is getting increasingly “Dumbed=down” under Rupert. Again, hardly cause for complacenecy when it comes to “Quality journalism”?

    Interesting, Rupert reserves most of his (quality journalism?) vitriol on the BBC and Google, the latter as representative of all consolidators. Yet if we accept that media IS a business like any other, these two Organisations represent sustainable business models in the electronic age. Although, in fairness, the BBC did lose its way somewhat under Labour lack of management control and profligacy.

    Perhpas it might be that the Digger himself is to blame for his own problems by being a luddite in not recognising the limited future in print jounalism as we know it.

    But Rupert’s cry of “You must pay for quality” is, I think disingenuous and not a leadership cry I would follow up a blind alley. Follow Rupert and you finish up with Fox News and News of the World. Is that the integrity of “Quality journalism”?

    • Dave C

      November 4, 2010 at 1:54 pm

      I know this is probably falling on deaf ears, given that the article is nearly two months old. But I just re-stumbled across it and had to say this:

      The BBC represents a “sustainable business model”??? They have the government supported ability to force people to give them money, even if you don’t use ANY of the BBC’s services…that sounds more like a “state-condoned robbery model” to me.

      Can you imagine how awesome we could ALL do in ANY business if we could use the government to FORCE people to pay us, even if they don’t use our services. E.g. I open a restaurant…even if you don’t go there and eat at McDonalds instead, you have to pay ME a “restaurant license fee”. I would be swimming in cash in no time.

  5. sydneymike

    September 9, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    If Peter was referring to me, then I think he is missing point(s) entirely. I was NOT discussing the rights and wrongs of paying for news but simply observing that, from the persepective of an objective observer with NO vested interests in the media whatsoever, unlike yourself I suspect:

    1. The Times paywall appears not to be succeeding and that even the 90% drop in viewership is artificially inflated by unique visits as far only as the paywall page, whcich still count. And further that:

    2. Not only is the content of the FT and WSJ unique, it is a fact that up to 90% of subscriptions are expensed to a Company. My point here being that the decision to buy anything is easier when someone else is going to pay. This is a viewpoint on human nature in general and does not in any way attempt suugest that only the elite should have access to intelligent and critical journalism. In fact, your agrguement also seems to be self-defeating if you are saying that, on the one evreyone should be prepared tp pay for news but, on the other, it’s a problem if only the elite can afford to pay? Perhpas you believe that if Labour come back to power thay can introduce a means test so that news will be free for the masses but the elite will have to pay?

    • Peter

      September 10, 2010 at 10:04 am

      I don’t care much for Labour actually, but it would be nice to see those who are better off do something decent with their money. Most likely in the world of media they simply use it to buy out their rival companies and spread their defunct, lazy & disgusting viewpoints. I would sooner die then see News Corp control all the mass media. I respect your points but I feel you slightly missed the point I was making. In fact I agree with your point below about Murdoch’s idea of “quality journalism” being idiotic coming from a man who owns Fox network, the sun & news of the world. He has as you say dumbed-down the WSJ since his buyout of it. I was simply saying that the news should be free for everyone as it is a vital thing for people to have. The times pay-wall actually makes me happy as now all the right-wing views will be kept on a pay only area. Lets hope they do the same for FOX.

      My point was that people who can pay maybe should pay as 99% of rich businessmen misuse their wealth an become greedy with money & power. People like Murdoch, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the owners of Google & the late Robert Maxwell could all have done or do much more with their wealth. They could help third-world countries clear debts, get better health care. They could do anything associated with charity but they are too busy lining their pockets and always wanting more.

      News should be unbiased, fair, truthful & ultimately free. However the fatalistic side of me sees that this will never happen. Thanks anyway for your comment.

      • Dave C

        November 4, 2010 at 2:01 pm

        Bill Gates has created the largest charitable foundation in the world (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and together with his wife, is the second biggest charitable philanthropist in the US, having given $28bn to charity. He has also pledged to give at least half of all his wealth to charity.

        I can’t speak of the others (Murdoch, Jobs, etc), but evidently neither can you.

  6. Peter

    September 9, 2010 at 11:08 am

    The times writers themselves were locked out of their own website the first few days it was up which was very interesting and funny. On anotehr note I remember it being reported in Private Eye that the Times had missed out on the expenses scandal which was unearthed in its rival the telegraph, this was way before the paywall was implemented but at the time News Int. had announced it would come into place. Private Eye also announced that while it derided the diecision you can see a method as the Guardian Media Group (my paper of choice) is losing millions of pounds perhaps because of no paywall.

    Most newspapers will implement the Times idea because while unpopular it gives some stability. Of course it doesn’t work for The Times at the moment because it is the only newspaper doing it but soon enough media owners such as GMG, Lebedev (owner of the Independent) and Richard Desmond’s company will realise the huge losses and find something in the paywall idea. Also, the Times seemed to miss out heavily on the Wikileaks War logs which were given to the Guardian and your idea of people leaking recognising giving it to a company which introduces a paywall is a bad idea is spot on.

    Just out of the interest, who did you work for in the field of advertising as I have read many articles on EPL Talk by you and they seem to be very insightful and knowledgable.

  7. sydneymike

    September 9, 2010 at 10:58 am

    1.More to the point, in addition to having unique content that can’t be obtained elsewhere for free, in most cases the FT and WSJ are paid for by a Company, not an individual.
    2. As I understand it, even accessing the front page of the Times or SUnday Times and then going no further upon being asked to pay, STILL counts as a visit. Although it lalso explains why the visit time has declined as these vsitors just exit immediately.

    Apparently, only 4 people in News Corp know the actual subsciber figures and they aren’t talking. Although my guess would be that is not because of a lack of willingnes to share good news?

    • Peter

      September 9, 2010 at 11:15 am

      It’s completely different from your chef idea because media groups & their journalists have a right under a democracy to represent news fairly, unbiased, free of political brokering and for EVERYONE. It is their duty to provide us, the public, with news on events both global and domestic with no bias. I wouldn’t like to live in a country where all the news had to be paid for so therefore was being restricted to the upper classes rather then the masses. News should not be bought and sold as a commodity it should be told as it is and should not be restricted to who is the wealthiest. Your idea is totally wrong & no I don’t agree that the best food, health etc should be restricted to who can afford it either, everyone has the right to food whether poor or rich, the same goes with news.

      • Dave C

        November 4, 2010 at 1:33 pm

        I know this is a very old thread now, and so it is unlikely that anyone will ever read this contribution, but I just had to respond to what you said.

        My analogy between expecting the media to provide news for free, and a chef to provide steak for free is NOT erroneous.

        You are right that the media has a RIGHT to represent news fairly, etc etc, to everyone. But it has no OBLIGATION (or “duty”) to do so, and it certainly has no obligation to do so free of charge. If all the media decided to start charging for content (or to just go out of business and stop producing content altogether), nobody has the authority to say “no, no, no, you have the DUTY to continue to provide free news coverage, you can’t charge/stop”.

        The same rights (in the constitution if you’re American, or in Common Law if you’re British) that allow people the right to free speech, free press and ownership of property ALSO grant them the right to silence, or to sell their property (i.e. their news articles) for a fee.

        Also, I have a couple of objections to the following pattern:
        “I wouldn’t like to live in a country where all the news had to be paid for so therefore was being restricted to the upper classes rather then the masses. News should not be bought and sold as a commodity it should be told as it is and should not be restricted to who is the wealthiest”

        Firstly, unless you were born in the last 10-15 years (i.e. after the internet really took off), you ALREADY have lived in a country where all news was paid for. Either you BOUGHT a newspaper, or you PAID for a TV package/subscription (or you were forced to pay a BBC license fee if you live in the UK). Even if you relied on free newspapers like the Metro, that is PAID for by advertising. Unless you think news is reported by a legion of volunteers for no payment, then your news is/was being paid for.

        Secondly, you don’t need to turn this into some class warfare thing either. The cost of the Times was only 50p per day circa 2006 (as I remember, I’ve since moved out of the UK, so I don’t know what it is today). That’s hardly restricting news consumption to “only the upper classes.”

        • Dave C

          November 4, 2010 at 1:41 pm

          Also @Peter….

          You think that the news should be free to the consumer, and I assume you do NOT expect it to be reported by an army of volunteer broadcasters as I facetiously mentioned above…so they have to be paid by someone.

          Which to my mind, leaves to choices: either they’re paid by advertisers (i.e. making the press subservient to corporate interests), or they’re paid by some kind of mandatory tax (thus making the press controlled by the government). I don’t think either method is conducive to your ideal of having a media that provides “fair and unbiased news for everyone.”

  8. Dave C

    September 9, 2010 at 10:08 am

    @ Jesse Chula:
    “Marcotti’s, Barclay’s and the other journalist’s work should be available for all to read and discuss. Because of the limited audience now viewing articles on The Times, football fans are missing out on some unique voices.”

    Right on, comrade. We the people have the right to the fruits of Marcotti & Barclay’s labors for free!

    In case you couldn’t tell, I’m being sarcastic. To say that something that someone has worked hard to create “should be available to everyone for free” is crazy. Try going to your local restaurant and telling the chef that he should give you his best steak for free, so that you don’t miss out on it’s unique taste. Or telling your accountant or lawyer that they should work for everyone for free, so that no-one misses out on their professional experience.

  9. Tom

    September 9, 2010 at 8:08 am

    A drop of 90% traffic does not mean that the paywall has failed though – if 10% of previous traffic pay for the subscription, im pretty sure it would be a massive success, and far more profitable than ad sales due to the subscription fees from so many people.

    The problem is that the likely percentage of subscribers is probably well below 10%, around 1 or 2%, which may or may not be more profitable than ad sales was previously.

    For what its worth, no i dont think the paywall is the long term solution either.

    • Dave C

      September 9, 2010 at 9:58 am

      I was about to make this very same point. The success/failure of the paywall can only really judged by looking at advertisment revenue from before the paywall, compared to ad revenue + subscription revenue from after the paywall. If readership has gone down, the Times shouldn’t really care as long as the subscriptions are bringing in the money.

      Also, it’s worth wondering if the sales of the hard-copy times have been effected by the paywall? I imagine previously, I might have restrained from buying the paper, on the grounds that I could read it for free on line anyway. Now though, if I was in a supermarket thinking of picking up a paper, I might well buy the Times.

      • Duke

        September 9, 2010 at 1:10 pm

        “Also, it’s worth wondering if the sales of the hard-copy times have been effected by the paywall?”

        This is an excellent point, Dave.

        I used to work in the direct mail industry; once had a client who was distressed by the decline in responses to their catalog mailings. It turned out that the response rate to mailings hadn’t changed significantly, but more people were placing orders through the website after receiving a catalog. This was in the early days of “e-Commerce,” and was an important lesson for me and my client.

        It’s important to keep in mind that online and IRL components of a business are very closely linked. The pay-wall may well be a success when the entire picture is taken into account.

  10. icebreaker

    September 9, 2010 at 4:19 am

    I think online pay- walls for news can work, the Financial Times has one and they don’t seem to have any problems. The problem of The Times is, as already mentioned, the lack of a USP and an inability to provide content that users can not get similarly elsewhere, like at The Guardian or The Telegraph.

    • Dave C

      September 9, 2010 at 9:53 am

      Good point. I don’t disagree with Paywalls per se, and in the case of the Financial Times, the paywall has worked because the FT has something that people are prepared to pay for. The Times on the other hand, doesn’t. Much as it was my favourite newspaper (for both sports and general news/politics reasons), I don’t like it enough to want to pay for it, when I could get the news for free from other papers.

  11. Villain-from-Texas

    September 8, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    I recently started paying for The Times, and it has been well worth the money. The content is much better than what I can find elsewhere. The regular webchats that Marcotti and Kay do, for example, are fantastic. I’ll happily keep paying for those.

    • Sydneymike

      September 8, 2010 at 10:12 pm


      Thanks, Rupert.

  12. Habsternaut

    September 8, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    BBC remains a constant source of free and unbiased information about EPL football, then L’Equipe is free too, and so is

    I miss G.Marcotti’s writing and blogging, but that’s about it.

    Sorry yo see the paywall go up, but just like the Berlin Wall this is coming down too 🙂

  13. The Gaffer

    September 8, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    An important point to add is that traffic to The Times’s website has dropped by 90 per cent since the paywall has added. Yikes!


    The Gaffer

  14. David

    September 8, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    I subscribe to the Times Online and am very disappointed by the content. I had hoped that I would be able to read the actual daily Times and Sunday Times in the same way that I can at
    Unfortunately they have made a poor attempt at creating a special online edition which contains articles that are sometimes two weeks out of date and is simply a poor imitation of the actual hard copy content.
    I will be dropping my subscription when the initial introductory offer ends.

  15. Rob McCluskey

    September 8, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Problem with the Time is that they don’t really have a USP to make people want it.

    If someone could crack that then you’d get people to pay for online news.

  16. Rene

    September 8, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    I agree with the article. To me, news is the same wherever you read it. I used to read the times every morning for my UK news but since have switched to The Guardian which is very good

  17. peter

    September 8, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    my question to all that expect news-for-free-forever is this: as the part of the paper industry that currently subsidizes the online part of paper industry – the actual hard copy paper – dwindles in sales because only people over 43 actually buy the paper – how will website/mobile based news be paid for?

    online advertising? not for the foreseeable future. Those dollars just aren’t there yet in the amounts needed to fund a proper news floor.

    I know you think that, “Marcotti’s, Barclay’s and the other journalist’s work should be available for all to read and discuss” but those people get paid and the other professionally written news isn’t generated by magic elves that work for cookies.

    Much like the music industry the world is going to have to get used to subscription based news and not getting for free from aggregate sites like Google…

    Good reporting doesn’t happen for free. You shouldn’t get it for free.

    If you want blog quality reporting, then you’ll get what you pay for, as the saying goes…

    • The Gaffer

      September 8, 2010 at 4:38 pm

      Peter, I agree with you that writers and papers need to get paid. But the way they’re going about it by setting up a paywall is exactly the thing they shouldn’t be doing. There is money to be made, but the paywall isn’t the way to go.

      The Gaffer

    • Scott Alexander

      September 8, 2010 at 7:23 pm

      Why not have subsidies/grants for newspapers just like we do for NPR, RNW, RFI, BBC et cetera?

      • brn442

        September 9, 2010 at 9:17 am

        Scott, you must be having a laugh. You want taxpayers to subsidize a for profit business owned by a Govt hating billionaire? What next, you want us to chip in for Man City’s wage bill?

      • Dave C

        September 9, 2010 at 10:01 am

        Ha, yeah I’m sure a state-funded newspaper would be an excellent source of impartial news-reporting…

    • mintox

      September 9, 2010 at 1:36 am

      No one has come up with the right model yet and because everyone is used to free news (which is the fault of no one but the Newspapers themselves) it’s made it virtually impossible to get the to pay for it.

      It’s a viscious cycle: news is brodcast online -> people stop buy less papers -> newspapers try to put more content online to keep readers loyal to them -> people read more news online -> people buy even less papers.

      If anyone tries to charge for it, readers go elsewhere.

      Inevitably one of two things will have to happen, either we continue as is and newspapers (both online and in print) die away to the point where the few remaining can charge for news and the industry is reborn OR
      They find some way of getting more money out of advertising, which at the end of the day is their only way of currently getting money online.

    • David Gerard

      September 11, 2010 at 10:34 am

      Of course it should be paid for. That’s why I sent fifty quid to Wikileaks.

      Mind you, their football coverage isn’t the best.

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