It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
In early July, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation placed its two London-based "quality" dailies, the Times and Sunday Times, behind a paywall, charging £1 for 24 hours access, or £2 a week (after an introductory £1 for the first month.*) At the same time, News Corp also forbad the UK's Audit Bureau of Circulations from reporting site traffic*, so that no meaningful measure of the paywall's effect was available.
That situation has now been partially reversed, with News reporting some of its own numbers: they claim 105,000 total transactions for digital content between July and October.* (Several people have wrongly reported this as 105,000 users. The number of users is smaller, as there can be more than one transaction per user.) News Corp notes that about half of those transactions were one-offs, meaning only about 50,000 transactions in those four months were by people with any commitment to the site longer than a single day.
Because that 50K number includes not just web site transactions, but Kindle and iPad sales as well, web subscribers are, at best, in the low tens of thousands. However, we don't know how small the digital subscriber number is, for two reasons. First, the better the Kindle and iPad numbers are, the worse the web numbers are. Second, News did not report, for example, whether a loyal reader from July to October would count as a single transaction or several consecutive transactions. (If iPad sales are good, and loyal users create multiple transactions, then monthly web subscribers could be under 10,000.)
The other figure News reported is that something like 100,000 print subscribers have requested web access. Combining digital-only and print subscribers, and comparing them with comScore's pre-paywall estimate of roughly six million unique readers worldwide*, the reduction in total web audience seems to be on the order of 97%. (Note that this reduction can't be measured by before and after traffic, as the home pages are outside the paywall, so people who refuse to pay still show up as visitors.)
Because the print subscribers outnumber digital-only users, most of the remaining 3% pay nothing for the site. Subscription to the paper is now a better draw for website use than any case News has been able to make for paid access.
Given the paucity of the data, the key question of churn remains unanswerable. After the introductory £1 a month offer, the annualized rate rises from £12 to £104. This will cause additional users to bail out, but we have no way of guessing how many.
As with every aspect of The Times' paywall, interpretation of these numbers varies widely. There are people arguing that these numbers are good news; Robert Andrews at PaidContent sees hope in the Times now having recurring user revenues.* There are people arguing that they are bad news; Mike Masnick at TechDirt believes those revenues are unlikely to offset new customer acquition costs and the loss of advertising.* What is remarkable though, what seems to need more explaining than News's strategy itself, is why anyone regards this particular paywall as news at all.
The "paywall problem" isn't particularly complex, either in economic or technological terms. General-interest papers struggle to make paywalls work because it's hard to raise prices in a commodity market. That's the problem. Everything else is a detail.
The classic description of a commodity market uses milk. If you own the only cow for 50 miles, you can charge usurious rates, because no one can undercut you. If you own only one of a hundred such cows, though, then everyone can undercut you, so you can't charge such rates. In a competitive environment like that, milk becomes a commodity, something whose price is set by the market as a whole.
Owning a newspaper used to be like owning the only cow, especially for regional papers. Even in urban markets, there was enough segmentation–the business paper, the tabloid, the alternative weekly–and high enough costs to keep competition at bay. No longer.
The internet commodifies the business of newspapers. Any given newspaper competes with a few other newspapers, but any newspaper website compete with all other websites. As Nicholas Carr pointed out during the 2009 pirate kidnapping, Google News found 11,264 different sources for the story, all equally accessible.* The web puts newspapers in competition with radio and TV stations, magazines, and new entrants, both professional and amateur. It is the war of each against all.
None of this is new. The potential disruptive effects of the internet on newspapers have been observable since ClariNet in 1989.* Nor has the business case for paywalls changed. The advantage of paywalls is that they raise revenue from users. The disadvantages are that they reduce readership, increase customer acquistion and retention costs, and eliminate ad revenue from user-forwarded content. In most cases, the disadvantages have outweighed the advantages.
So what's different about News paywall? Nothing. It's no different from other pay-for-access plans, whether the NY Times' TimesSelect* or the Harligen Texas Valley Morning Star.* News Corp has produced no innovation in content, delivery, or payment, and the idea of 90%+ loss of audience was already a rule of thumb over a decade ago. Yet something clearly feels different.
Over the last fifteen years, many newspaper people have assumed continuity with the analog business model, which is to say they assumed that readers could eventually be persuaded or forced pay for digital editions. This in turn suggested that the failure of any given paywall was no evidence of anything other than the need to try again.
What is new about the Times' paywall–what may in fact make it a watershed–isn't strategy or implementation. What's new is that it has launched as people in the news business are re-thinking assumed continuity. It's new because the people paying attention to it are now willing to regard the results as evidence of something. To the newspaper world, TimesSelect looked like an experiment. The Times and Sunday Times look like a referendum on the future.
One way to escape a commodity market is to offer something that isn't a commodity. This has been the preferred advice of people committed to the re-invention of newspapers. It is a truism bordering on drinking game material that anyone advising newspapers will at some point say "All you need to do is offer a product so relevant and valuable the consumer is willing to pay for it!"
This advice is well-meaning. It's just not much help. The suggestion that newspapers should, in the future, create a digital product users are willing to pay for is merely a restatement of the problem, by way of admission that the current product does not pass that test.
Most of the historical hope for paywalls assumed that through some combination of reader desire and supplier persuasiveness, the current form of the newspaper could survive the digital transition without significant alteration.
Payalls, as actually implemented, have not accomplished this. They don't expand revenue from the existing audience, they contract the audience to that subset willing to pay. Paywalls do indeed help newspapers escape commodification, but only by ejecting the readers who think of the product as a commodity. This is, invariably, most of them.
You can see this contraction at the Times and Sunday Times in the reversal of digital to print readers. Before the paywall, the two sites had roughly six times more readers than there were print sales of the paper edition. (6M web vs. 1M print for the Sunday Times* .) Post-paywall, the web audience is less than a sixth of print sales (down to <150K vs. 1M). The paying web audience is less a twentieth of print sales (<50K vs. 1M), and possibly much less.
One way to think of this transition is that online, the Times has stopped being a newspaper, in the sense of a generally available and omnibus account of the news of the day, broadly read in the community. Instead, it is becoming a newsletter, an outlet supported by, and speaking to, a specific and relatively coherent and compact audience. (In this case, the Times is becoming the online newsletter of the Tories, the UK's conservative political party, read much less widely than its paper counterpart.)
Murdoch and News Corp, committed as they have been to extracting revenues from the paywall, still cannot execute in a way that does not change the nature of the organizations behind the wall. Rather than simply shifting relative subsidy from advertisers to users for an existing product, they are instead re-engineering the Times around the newsletter model, because the paywall creates newsletter economics.
As of July, non-subscribers can no longer read Times stories forwarded by colleagues or friends, nor can they read stories linked to from Facebook or Twitter. As a result, links to Times stories now rarely circulate in those media. If you are going to produce news that can't be shared outside a particular community, you will want to recruit and retain a community that doesn't care whether any given piece of news spreads, which means tightly interconnected readerships become the ideal ones. However, tight interconnectedness correlates inversely with audience size, making for a stark choice, rather than offering a way of preserving the status quo.
This re-engineering suggests that paywalls don't and can't rescue current organizational forms. They offer instead yet another transformed alternative to it. Even if paywall economics can eventually be made to work with a dramatically reduced audience, this particular referendum on the future (read: the present) of newspapers is likely to mean the end of the belief that there is any non-disruptive way to remain a going concern.
Also, nota bene: One of the problems with the various "Hey you guys, I just had a great idea for saving newpapers!" micropayment comments showing up in my moderation queue is that the proposers often exhibit no understanding that micropayments have a 20-year history of failure.
I will not post comments suggesting that micropayments will save the news industry unless those comment refer to at least some of the theoretical or practical literature on previous attempts to make them work for the news business. Start here: Why Small Payments Won't Save Publishers