Juliet Dobson: How to pay for quality journalism in a digital world?

Juliet DobsonIt is almost a year since News International decided to put Times Online and the Sunday Times websites behind a paywall. It was a watershed moment for journalism, and on Monday 9 May City University organised a talk about how to pay for quality journalism in a digital age.

The debate started with Geordie Grieg, editor of the Evening Standard, talking about how the paper’s finances were rescued by changing their publishing model and giving the paper away for free. The Evening Standard was losing 10-20% of its revenue per year, and had huge financial losses. The company decided to go free and concentrated on giving out the paper in fewer places. At Oxford Circus tube station it used to sell on average 700 copies a day. It now distributes 32,000 copies a day in the same place. Their advertising yield has gone up by 120% and they are expecting to start making a profit in 2012. The key to the success is, he said, that they are still a quality paper, producing good journalism. They recently won two awards to prove that. The success of this plan was evident as a large number of the audience was carrying copies of that evening’s paper, picked up from the free stall by the university entrance.

Dan Sabbagh, media editor, The Guardian, spoke next. He said there is too much “either/or” thinking, and that mixed models or hybrid models are most likely to work best. The Guardian’s website is attracting many more readers than the print copy, and this number is ever increasing. The site recently had the highest number of visitors in one day, 4.5 million readers on the day Osama Bin Laden was killed. Online revenue is also increasing, and is 10 times higher than print revenue. So online is still an area of growth, and there is still potential to expand further. The Guardian also makes money elsewhere online, for example with their Soulmates dating website.

Another issue with having a paywall, Sabbagh said, is that it cuts journalists out of the conversation. The Guardian wants to be a content aggregator, and pull together lots of good information online, whereas the Times and Sunday Times journalists are enclosed behind access controls. Katie Vanneck-Smith, chief marketing officer at News International, used a great quote from Caitlin Moran to illustrate why we should pay for articles online. Moran argued that writers need to earn a living, and unless paywalls are imposed, then the only people who will be able to afford to work as journalists will be those from wealthy backgrounds, who don’t need to earn money in the first place. It was a great quote; funny and convincing. But it just reminded me how often I used to read and enjoy Caitlin Moran’s writing, and since the paywall has gone up I never read anything she writes. And of course I can’t link to Moran’s column, because it is behind access controls. Doesn’t it bother any of News International journalists that they have lost a large part of their audience?

Vanneck-Smith argued that it doesn’t matter, because rather than having millions of “browsers,” they now have readers who are more engaged with the writing, because they are paying to read it. Their readers now spend more time on the site, they click through more often, and they comment more. Plus their online subscriptions are still growing, whereas their print subscriptions are down by 12%.

Stevie Spring, chief executive, Future Publishing, wondered whether online subscriptions were growing so much because of all the added value that comes with an online subscription. She said she was worried that the Times, and Sunday Times don’t have 79,000 people who are subscribing to get access to the websites, rather they are subscribing because of all the additional perks that come with a subscription.

Spring also made an interesting point, that we think we aren’t paying for content online, but of course we are paying for our computers and broadband connections. She said that we disincentivise people from paying for things when we take them out of their packaging, which made me think that iPads and Tablets will surely change this. People don’t object to paying for apps, or digital magazines, in the same way as they object to paying for online content. It is all about how the content is packaged up and presented to the user.

Juliet Dobson is the assistant web editor and blogs editor, BMJ