Thursday, January 28, 2010

What barrier a paywall?

US blogs have been jumping all over the story that the Long Island weekly Newsday has gained a mere 35 online subscriptions in the three months since they put their site behind a paywall.

It’s a worrying figure, given extra resonance coming as it does on the back of the neighbouring New York Times announcement of a paywall from 2011.

But without knowing the full extent of their subscription model, I’m not clear what it tells us. The sums are clear: online-only subscribers pay $5 a week (or $260 a year) giving an annual return of $9,000 against a capital cost of $4 million, which is what new owners, Cablevision spent rebuilding the site with the wall in place.

But given the massive subscriber base the company already has via its print home deliveries and Cablevision customers – all of whom get online access as part of the deal - these may be irrelevant in terms if the business model, especially if such access was part of the upsell.

In other words, they have near-saturation already, the 35 are incidental. Rather like the guaranteed circulation publications (freesheets to the plain-speaking) delivered to every house in town but available for a quid “where sold”.

More interesting is the massive fall in traffic since October: uniques are down from 2.2 to 1.5 million. Again, that could be a direct result of the barrier or something to do with the popularity of the redesign. I can’t recall the old one, but there are some on the newsroom floor that have been less than complimentary.

Behind all this though is another business question: how important are page impressions?
The Guardian has just set a new record for a UK national newspaper, recording an incredible 36.98 million global uniques for December - a 62 per cent rise from last year. Digital Director Emily Bell, who must take a wallop of the credit, puts it down to their coverage of the Copenhagen climate change conference, which is in itself interesting.

I say that because, despite high-minded claims to the contrary, hits are normally driven by the quirky, the bizarre or the risque; Elvis reincarnated as Man in the Moon, cancer man grows tree our of his head or Cheryl Cole takes a skinny dip; the sort of stories that would lead Sunday Sport in the eighties. And a lot of it’s down to cleverly cynical use of SEO, even Googling phrases and penning stories to catch the wave.

Hit inflation has been responsible for digital newsroom high-fiving since Fleet Street properly caught on in the mid-nineties. And the Guardian is not alone. The Mail, second in the online premiership table, saw a 67 per cent rise, for example.

So, the question is: just how many more eyes do we need on our sites – and how important are these masses as against, say, a more minimal, closed, core readership?

Few of these conversations can take place in such broad terms. If anything, publishers will have to seek alliances outside the industry if they are to seek traffic of proper relevance.

I wouldn’t be so quick to write off the Newsday debacle. It has to be down to individual business models to determine what these figures mean. In the meantime, there was a quirky one worthy of note, if a comment on one posting is to be believed: 35 is the exact number of senior executives at the paper.

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