The past week has seen a landmark change in the British press – the White Times has finally implemented its plans to charge readers for online content. When I tried to read a story this morning, I got a polite but friendly notice – complete with shades of puce and nice pink buttons – telling me to pay Â£1 to read it.
To many in the internet community, this step is a backwards one, but you can bet your Â£1 reading fee that it will be closely watched by all of the other papers. The big problem for the Times is that there is so much free information on the internet – including on other newspapers’ web sites – that the its decision to charge for access could end up just costing it even more readers. And it is this decline in readership, of course – alongside falling advertising revenues – that have put newpapers’ finances under so much pressure. So the Times is taking an economic gamble – and hoping to plug the hole in its coffers with some extra e-revenue. This is in complete contrast to the approach of Alexander Lebedev, the Russian billionaire, who has already made the Evening Standard free, and may be mulling the same move for the Independent. The Standard’s circulation boomed after moving to free distribution – but the downside, of course, is that the business has to run solely on the basis of its advertising revenues. So which business model will prevail?
What the Times is relying on, simply, is the strength of its brand. If readers value the quality of the Times’ journalism sufficiently highly, and are not tempted to go to competitors instead, then it may hold onto its readership, and raise significant revenues in the process. But the things about brands is that they need to target their audience and be sufficiently differentiated from their competitors – it is not by chance that the two major papers who already charge for online content, the FT and the Wall Street Journal, have clear specialisms and target well-off audiences, ie the business community. With the best will in the world, the White Times cannot match the FT on business – and, while we’re at it, can it really match the red tops on football, the Telegraph on rugby, the Guardian’s left-wing leanings or the Independent’s tendency to focus on off-beat lead stories that the rest of the mainstream press often miss? (I am not sure anyone would really want to match the Daily Mail for gossip and tittle-tattle.) Perhaps more importantly, can any of the big four (ex-)broadsheets really compete with the BBC when it comes to news websites? This is, of course, part of the reason why Murdoch Jnr has led such a campaign against the Corporation – he’s worried people will leave the Times for BBC news too.
The big question at the heart of this is: what sets the Times apart? What makes it worth paying for if there are already free competitors out there, that are easy to find? In the jargon, what is its USP?
I, for one, am not really sure that it has one. I will probably continue to buy its sister paper, the Sunday Times, if only for that Clarkson chap. But for my swift, on-demand news, I will go to other free sites – including the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph – and, of course, The Economic Voice. Early indications suggest that others agree with me – there are reports that traffic to the Times site has fallen by 60% since the registration wall went live. Unfortunately for the Times, at the end of the day history can only explain why a brand started – it is what that brand delivers today that determines whether it is valued or not. It remains to be seen whether the Times will pass that test.