Who wants to read The Times anyway?

It comes as no great surprise that The Times newspaper’s website is to charge for access to content. Rupert Murdoch has been threatening this for some time, having already closed his free London newspaper thelondonpaper last September.

But at £1 per day – the current price of the printed daily – how many people are going to pay to access the website? Wouldn’t they rather just buy the newspaper if they want to read it in depth? On the other hand, many of the visitors to the site will be browsers who just dip in for a few minutes, or people following a link to a particular article. Are they going to pay a pound just for that? Somehow I doubt it. I remain to be convinced of the case for charging for online content, but if charging is deemed necessary, surely this should be though micro-payments: small payments that are charged for each page view. That way, people can still browse the site casually, and the publishers benefit from receiving a small amount of money from a large number of visitors, while still retaining a large reader base and disseminating their editorial line further.

Why does Rupert Murdoch sell newspapers? Is it to make money, or is it to gain influence? Even the printed edition of The Times is loss making, and is cross-subsidised from other publications such as The Sun. If money making was the object, surely closing the paper would be the answer. I’ve always assumed that Murdoch’s aim is political influence, in which case drastically cutting the number of visitors to the newspaper’s website does not seem to be a good idea.

The sad thing about any restrictions placed on online content is that it limits the ways in which it can be accessed. News International have already accused Google of stealing their content. Yet Google News is a fantastic service in the way it allows readers to find the same story in different publications to see what is being said about it in different countries or in journals with a different political bent. The BBC similarly link to articles covering a story on different news sites. People from all corners of the globe still respect The Times and consider it the definitive British newspaper. But for how much longer if they can no longer access it freely? And as with the “legal” sites for downloading music and video content, charging for online news is a huge step backwards in the efforts to remove borders between nations and make different countries a little less insular. It will also seem a little odd if I am able to read a story about British politics for free in the Taipei Times or the India Times but not in The Times of London.

The BBC had an interesting table of statistics in their article, and I’ve reproduced the figures for the four main broadsheets here:

Newspaper Print circulation Annual change Online unique browsers Annual change
The Daily Telegraph 685,177 -9.8 1,548,059 9.7
The Guardian 284,514 -16.4 1,869,448 36.6
The Independent 183,547 -10.9 465,346 3.6
The Times 505,062 -16.9 1,215,446 -1.8

The table shows that all of the newspapers have seen a drop in readers of their print editions, but all except The Times have seen rises in the number of online readers. The Guardian, whose editor has vowed not to charge for online content, has seen a huge increase in online readers. Whatever the exact reason for the figures, it shows that most of the publishers have been quite successful at encouraging people to visit their websites, whereas The Times is losing readers of both its formats. Perhaps policies such as restricting how much content can appear in Google have had a detrimental effect. It does give an indication as to what will happen to reader numbers once charging is introduced.

But maybe the reason for the drop in readers of The Times is that people are tired of the newspaper’s style and political slant, and of the Murdoch editorial line. The newspaper is no longer the revered publication it once was. It seems people simply don’t want to read it any more, and forcing them to pay extra for the privilege certainly isn’t going to improve readership figures.

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