02 December 2009

Britain's Johnston Press Experimenting With Paid Content

Times Online

Britain’s most prolific newspaper publisher began charging yesterday for some of its online content, in a closely watched move that could be copied across the country.

Johnston Press, which owns more than 300 local newspapers including the Yorkshire Post and The Scotsman, put “paywalls” around the websites of six of its titles. It is the first regional publisher to charge for online news.

From yesterday, readers of three Johnston titles, the Northumberland Gazette, the Whitby Gazette and the Southern Reporter, will pay £5 for a three-month online subscription. Three others papers, the Carrick Gazette, the Worksop Guardian and Ripley and Heanor News, will post summaries online and tell readers to buy the paper for the full story.

John Fry, the chief executive of Johnston Press, said that his industry had become more open recently to charging for content. “In the last six months the nature of the conversation has changed,” he said.

Mr Fry will judge whether the experiment has been a success before deciding whether to extend the scheme.

Rival publishing groups await the results of the three-month trial. Like them, Johnston Press has been bombarded by both recession and a declining readership. Advertising revenues at the group slumped by 42 per cent over the past two years. Although the decline is bottoming out, executives across the newspaper industry are looking at new ways to boost earnings. “It’s clearly an interesting opportunity for the industry,” said Lynne Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Newspaper Society, which represents local titles. “We would expect more publishers to start exploring whether consumers would be willing to pay for different sections of local content.”

The Johnston scheme follows the announcement by Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corporation, that he intends to introduce fees for all of the group’s news websites, including The Times. Mr Murdoch’s plans were boosted this month by a Boston Consulting Group survey which found that 48 per cent of British and American consumers would be willing to pay for online news.

But other surveys have reached different conclusions, and some media commentators still think charging for online content is risky. “If you have content which broadly can be found somewhere else you’re going to really restrict people coming to your website,” Emily Bell, director of digital content at the Guardian, told Radio 4 yesterday.

Mr Fry emphasised that his local newspapers offered a “unique” service which readers may be prepared to pay for. Reports on local court and council meetings, for instance, could not be accessed elsewhere.

In America, newspaper paywalls have had varying degrees of success. In 2007 The New York Times scrapped its premium subscription programme for online access to columnists and its archive. But the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, which charges online, has maintained its circulation and income.

Specialist publications such as the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, another News Corp title, also have subscription services.

Mingling with other regional newspaper executives at a lunch hosted yesterday by the Newspaper Society, Mr Fry also accused the BBC of “nicking content” through its local news websites. The corporation was “threatening to collapse the news pyramid”, he said. A BBC spokewoman said that the corporation was “a strong contributor to original local journalism”.

Speaking at the lunch was Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, who said there was a “strong case” for alternative public content providers to keep the BBC “on its toes”.

A national roll-out of independently funded news groups is scheduled for 2013, he said.

Last week Mark Thompson, the Director-General of the BBC, hinted that he would rein in the Corporation’s online local news output. Mr Thompson said that a strategy review to be announced in the New Year would make sure that the “many millions of pages that are up there need to be there”.

“It might be a slightly smaller website,” he said. “It might be stronger, making sure we are playing to our strengths.”

Reader reaction

Whitby Gazette

In the Yorkshire fishing port of Whitby the idea of paying £5 to subscribe to the online version of the local paper for three months did not impress the residents (Andrew Norfolk writes).

Jane Legge, 58, said that the Whitby Gazette would be “lucky” if people subscribed to an online service that was “not very easy to look at and navigate around. I think that paying for news online has got to happen eventually, otherwise newspapers will go under, but I wouldn’t subscribe. To say there’s not a lot going on in Whitby would be an understatement.”

Worksop Guardian

Online readers of the Worksop Guardian are being tempted by the first sentence of each story, then told that they should buy a copy of the paper (Andrew Norfolk writes). Residents questioned yesterday whether anything ever happened in the town that was exciting enough for a single-sentence summary to make them eager to spend 60p on the paper.

Dawn Hamilton, 19, a student, said: “I don’t think putting teasers on the internet will work.” But Daniel Hall, 24, said: “£5 for three months wouldn’t be very much.”

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