Would you pay to read a website?

As it has been over a year since the arrival of the pay wall for the online editions of The Times and The Sunday Times, I thought it was worth conducting my first poll to establish peoples’ recent reactions to this matter. Currently, 105,000 people are reported to be paying to access the Times/Sunday Times online. However, after removing those not continuing from promotional trials, the regular subscribers figure is estimated at nearer the 30-50,000 mark. So the question remains are users still put off from paying for online news and has there been a change in opinions since this earlier bbc debate?

My initial response to the question back in May 2010, was a rather angry “no” and “why?”- surely the whole point of the internet was its free content, and presumably the Times could profit from an online advertising revenue instead? It seemed commercially hard-hearted to charge for an online ‘service/amenity’. However, my views are now changing in light of our increasing digital-driven consumption of news and the increasing prevalence of ‘buying online’. Why indeed should news be an exception to the profit hungry ventures of companies like itunes or asos? Moreover, to quote my mum “good things don’t come for free”, even online?

As this bbc article concludes, the internet has changed dramatically from its early beginnings, with email only beginning to become popular in the late 1990s and paid-for content originally associated with quality-

“There were letters from subscribers complaining that they wanted to pay, because they thought this was plainly a move towards cutting the service.”

Thus it was not until the dot.com boom that users started to expect online newspapers to be free and there lies the problem- with free reading viewed as an online ‘norm’, how difficult is it going to be to reverse this understanding? As Arena Media debates that for a pay wall news site to retain customers, it is essential to build long term usage and crucially ensure “quality, uniqueness and brand loyalty”. As such, given that pay wall will act as a deterrent to many online readers (as many will migrate to other similar sites where they can read for free), newspapers will need to attract readers in new, innovative ways, with a long-term focus. For example- using data from payments to target material to their readership more aptly and directly, or providing a loyalty payment scheme; might minimise consumer resistance and drive readership among usually hard-to-reach demographics (via ipads for example).

However, another flaw concerns the nature of the internet itself. Firstly, due to its constant growth, the internet has a mass of news alternatives available, including blogs which are growing in popularity and openly defy many journalist codes of professionalism. This ultimately means that the content of pay wall news sites, like the Times, will have to be better for consumers to choose to pay for it. Secondly, the internet is what the bbc charmingly describes as a “leaky bucket”, in the sense that many different pathways exist for content to be copied and re-distributed, resulting in a potential crisis of newspaper piracy or plagiarism.

So where does this leave the pay wall? Frankly, I am not sure. I believe that the Times is unlikely to make a u-turn on its pay-to-view principle, but by being alone in its decision to implement it, it has suffered serious readership losses. And being one of the post-university ‘poor’, I too am not quite willing to pay the price.. yet that is.

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