The Times’ paywall has destroyed its brand equity and its circulation

Thirty years ago when living in the UK I was a daily purchaser of The Times. Three years ago I was a daily visitor to the The Times website and an occasional purchaser of the newspaper (around 30 copies per year when I was travelling). Then they introduced their hard paywall and I abstained. But withdrawal symptoms did not last too long and I don’t miss them very much – if at all. In fact, the absence of The Times from my daily reading  has had far less impact than I would have imagined. Nowadays it is very rarely that I find any references to articles in The Times that I would like to follow up on. The Times is no longer the paper of record in the UK and its restricted access makes it of little value as a reference for others.

I have a theory that the simplistic introduction of paywalls is not the model which will work for a very complex behavioural change in reading and news gathering and reference habits that is currently evolving. I suspect that the successful models will probably be those that involve an expansion of what can be viewed freely, but where this expanded readership can then be enticed into an increase in the purchase of valuable downloadable content. Restricting the initial readership – I think – can only lead to a collapsing spiral of interest and a destruction of brand value. The total circulation of The Times today for both the online and the paper versions together  is less than the paper circulation before the paywall.

In an article actually about the Bonniers struggling to find their own model, Svenska Dagbladet writes about The Times:

It is well understood that for putting value on journalism it is central to be creative in the development of payment models. However, there are some really bad examples. Worst of all is the newspaper that really listened to Jeanette Bonnier.

End the free reading! Close the store!  If you want to read, you must pay!

Which paper was that then? A certain paper called The Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch / News International. Just over two years ago they introduced a so-called hard pay wall. Not a thing was released over the fence without payment. The decision to completely close the site for open access  – and even to the  search engines, which they were forced to back down from the other week – possibly was by following  Jeanette Bonnier’s intuition. Or was it a way for Murdoch to provoke the industry to act. Either way, it was a gigantic failure.

Before the pay wall The Times Online had 21 million readers each month. Today, they have … drum roll! … 130 000 paying customers. Nowhere else in the history of journalism have so many readers – and so many advertisers – been scared away so effectively.

Even more interesting is the effect on the paper version. Its circulation during the same period fell from 570,000 per day to 397000. It is much more than what other newspapers have lost.

The explanation?

  1. A brand fatally weakened as fewer and fewer read the content, and
  2. Subscribers to the paper version shifting their allegiance to the much cheaper on-line, pay-walled version

The result was fewer subscribers, sharply lower revenues and a significantly depleted brand. And that’s what happens  if you’re looking for simple solutions to handle a complex situation.

I have the strong “guesstimate” and rather more than just a belief, that if The Times had increased their online (free) readership  they could have bucked the trend and even increased their paper circulation – by offering more content in the paper version where such content was also available on-line – but for a fee.

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