Are newspaper paywalls working?

Reports of the Thunderer‘s demise may be premature, going by a presentation from Guardian media editor Dan Sabbagh to the November meeting of the National Union of Journalists‘ London Freelance Branch. I didn’t get to attend that meeting myself, and so am basing this post on a piece by Matt Salusbury in the December issue of the LFB newsletter.

According to Sabbagh, newspapers cannot realistically continue with a business model that charges for print, and gives away online content for free. Sabbagh didn’t have anything to say about the Guardian‘s plans; he focused on The Times and other News International titles, and outlined some interesting details about current practice, including that of his own employer. For example, the online Guardian brings in £40 million per year, of which £10 million is from lonely hearts services. Online advertising revenue covers no more than half the editorial budget.

As for The Times, News International had by November secured 105,000 subscribers (c.f. half a million print circulation), with many making use of special introductory offers. Sabbagh estimates that Times paywall receipts were about £5.5 million gross up to November.

These data from Guardian Media Ltd and News International may not be sufficient to encourage other media outlets to introduce paywalls, but they are positive indicators, and are enough, at least, for News International to continue with its paywall trials. Bundling Times and News of the World online subscriptions with other News International services such as Sky TV is an option that may be worth pursuing. Another is online video exclusives to accompany print-based stories.

Will paywalls save journalism? It’s far too early to say, and so far Sabbagh doesn’t see paywalls presenting many opportunities for freelance journalists.

Paywalls or no, I cannot make a living from freelance journalism alone, even for specialist business-to-business titles, and am therefore forced to secure the bulk of my income from other sources, including work for the ‘dark side’. This presents the potential for conflicts of interest, and for financial and ethical reasons I may soon decide to abandon journalism altogether. That would be a shame, for I much prefer reportage and editorial analysis to spin.

When it comes to the future of journalism, charging for online news content may save media companies, but it’s a mistake to directly correlate business takings with editorial quality. Or even quantity, for that matter. High quality news reporting and analysis still exists in medialand, but is largely restricted to the inside pages of broadsheet newspapers, The Times and Guardian included, and specialist periodicals. Paywall takings may help subsidise quality journalism, but we should not necessarily expect to see it featured prominently on our favourite websites.