What The Times Paywall Could Mean for Public Relations Practitioners
There has a been a heck of a lot of discussion, analysis and comment since Monday when News Corporation announced official subscriber figures for the, relatively new, Times and Sunday Times websites.
A quick history: News Corps’ ever enigmatic head honcho Rupert Murdoch and associates got rather fed up with the freebie nature of providing news content online that has followed the rise of this here Internet. To deal with this, a paywall was erected around The Times and Sunday Times websites that halted Google and the like from crawling content and indexing it for any and all to find, and also required anyone wishing to view news online to pay for it - by either buying a day pass or subscribing.
Until now, the success of this has been something of a mystery for those in the media, advertising and PR lands. It was acknowledged from the off that the paywall would significantly reduce the number of visitors to the newspaper sites, but the trade off would be the quality of reader (and some cash). Since the walls went up in June we’ve waited, literally in the middle of our seats, to see what’s what. And now we know.
According to figures released by News Corp this week, the paper has “more than 105,000 customer sales to date”. That’s around 0.5 per cent of the 20 million unique monthly visits they had before the paywall. Or 0.25 per cent if you chop out all those paying for a day pass rather than a regular subscription…or 5 per cent of the 5 per cent paying vs free subscribers you generally need to make a ‘freemium’ model business work (not that they’re shooting for freemium). You know what, don’t get bogged down in the numbers.
The point is, there’s way less people clapping eyes on Times editorial than there used to be. But those that do are, one would assume, more engaged, dedicated readers. Times editor James Harding thinks so anyway, as he’s stated “We haven’t been cut off from the conversation, because the media works as a huge echo chamber and readers are commenting on our stories in a more engaging way.”
So what does this all mean for PRs? Let’s have a look:
Casual vs. decided readers: What’s better; 100 causal readers skimming an article or ten dedicated readers who read every word, consider an article, leave a few informed comments, post it on Twitter or Digg and, ultimately, have their opinion on a given topic influenced.
Or, to put it simply, quality vs. quantity. It’s a tough one to answer. Regardless, the paywall removes the ‘casual’ reader from the equation. No one is going to stumble across a Times article on Google News because they’re simply not there. You won’t get Google Alerts on any relevant keywords either. Even Meltwater won’t provide you with relevant articles as they’ve been blocked from crawling The Times site.
This is relevant for general reach of the newspapers, and for their use by PRs. Any PR worth their salt will check the nationals every day for the most recent news, and RSS has been a god send to the industry in making this manageable. Now The Times requires you to head to the site, log-in, wait for a page to load, click on the relevant section and then read and filter through headlines to spot what’s new, what’s featured and what’s from yesterday. And that relies on you heading to just one section, such as ‘tech’ or ‘health’. Cards on the table, this is a huge pain when you’re busy, especially when you consider the vast majority of news can be read on other national, trade and vertical sites?
How exclusive is an exclusive?: If you have a real juicy piece of news from a client, it’s not a bad idea to take it to a national on an exclusive basis. Offer an eloquent and knowledgeable spokesperson combined with a solid news hook and you’re looking at a big ol’ splash for your client. But, living in the online world that we do, an exclusive never stays exclusive for long. One news site might spot the piece and write it up, linking to the original and/or your client’s website (so some SEO help thrown into the deal). Then another two sites spot that piece and write it up. Then half a dozen blogs bat it back and forth debating pros and cons. Before you know it you’ve got a raft of coverage from one phone call - and a ton of engaged readers and commenters to boot.
With the paywall, the chances of your story getting spotted and subsequently spread are greatly reduced. Of course it’s never not going to happen, but the more barriers you put in place, the less likely it becomes.
The all seeing ‘i’: Also consider quality of readership in different verticals. News Corps’ figures include both readers of the newspaper websites and those subscribing via iPad or Kindle ereader (and likely more tablet apps to follow in due course). Now, from a purely selfish tech PR perspective, chances are anyone reading news on an iPad is going to have at least a passing interest in technology news. Does that mean the audience reading The Times on an iPad and happily paying a subscription for it is more engaged than say a reader of guardian.co.uk? Or even the Guardian’s iPad app that (until December) is a one off cost?
Coverage counting: This is a minor point, but worth throwing in as it relates. It is standard practice to count print and online coverage as two spate pieces, even if identical copy published online is published in the next morning’s paper. The theory is you’re reaching two different audiences, or at least a greater number of readers than a piece solely online or print reaches (yes, some stuff appears in print only).
But where do you draw the line with multiple versions of the same story? Do you count coverage on an iPad app separately for instance? In theory, you’re reaching a different audience and, again from a purely selfish tech PR perspective, you could assume an iPad reader is a more technically minded individual than his/her inky fingered counterpart. Add to that Kindle coverage, mobile versions of websites and numerous smartphone apps and you’re looking at half a dozen replications of the same piece. Where does it end?
As Robert Andrews of Paid Content puts it “it’s still early days”. News Corp has dived head first into a new model for old media. They expect their numbers to grow. This could be the beginning of something wonderful, or the continuation of ‘the end’ for traditional media titles. One thing is clear; The Times they are a-chargin’.