Does the paywall affect social activity? – The Times’ use of Twitter

The Times was first published in London in 1785 and has had an online presence since 1999. Before July 2010, The Times was receiving 21 million (unique) users per month, but with the declining sale figures for print, owners News International made the drastic decision to put the paper behind a pay wall.

Anyone who wants to read The Times online content must pay £2 per week in order to have free reign of the website. Reasonable, you might think, until you consider that all other mainstream British newspapers – bar The Sunday Times – are free to view online. Sharing content on Twitter (and other social networks) from these websites is not problematic, so it’s hard to understand why The Times have opted for the paywall when the benefits are not so obvious.

Since introducing it in July 2010, the website’s number of users per month has fallen to 2.7 million (a decrease of 87%), but only 110,000 people have subscribed to The Times digitally. The figures don’t seem too bad, but when compared to The Daily Mail‘s 6.8 million viewers per month and the 6.4 million readers for The Guardian (source), the numbers don’t hold up too well.

Is this because of the paywall? When you consider how many links are shared every day on Twitter to articles on news websites and how much traffic they must generate, it could well be. People want to know that what they will be paying for, so when a non-Times subscriber clicks on a link on Twitter, they are taken to a preview of the article – usually the first three pars – and can read no further than that. Hardly very enticing, is it?

Blogger Joseph Stashko recently said that the reason The Times sometimes publish articles outside of the paywall is to generate much traffic and to hopefully earn more subscribers. He said:

“If people deem what they see ocassionally slipping out of the Times paywall to be worth the price of entry (I can count the people I know on two hands who subscribe for Caitlin Moran’s columns alone) then this kind of tactic could well be a new way to attract loyal subscribers to their brand.” (source)

And what of Caitlin Moran? She’s recently released her book, Moranthology, a compilation of all her best Times articles to do. However, when the paywall went down in September 2010, she tweeted:

“@caitlinmoran: SCREAM! Apparently the Times paywall has just fallen down! Quick! Read all my articles!”

… Which gives some indication as to how Times journalists on Twitter must feel about the paywall. Moran alone has over 340,000 followers – over three times as many as subscribe to The Times. It must feel slightly frustrating for her – and other Times journos – to know that tweets containing links to their articles will be largely pointless. Although, perhaps Stashko has a point. People with enough disposable income might subscribe to The Times, in whatever format, not for news, but for the features and columnists.

It’s long been disputed that the paywall is not the best way to make journalism pay in the online evolution, so is there a better alternative?  Gordon MacMillan, in The Wall, said: “There is also anecdoctal evidence that a lack of social presence damages the Times brand.” (source). So, then, what is the solution for The Times, and other papers moving towards the paywall? Is there one?

What do you think?

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