The Times paywall has now been up for a month. Since July 2nd visitors to its website have had to pay either £1 for 24 hours access, or for a subscription rate. Various esteemed media bods have tried to estimate exactly how many readers were paying to view the Times website. These numbers vary, but generally the figure seems to be around 15,000 paid subscribers, plus a similar number paying for ipad subscriptions. What is clear is that the Times website has lost a lot of readers since forcing people to pay for its services. Indeed, traffic could be down by as much as 90%, possibly more, since introducing the paywall.
It was inevitable that such a huge drop in traffic would happen. Why would you pay for news on the internet, when there is so much stuff available for free? I used to go on the Times website quite a bit; Michael Atherton is one of the best cricket writers out there (and my childhood hero), whilst Hugo Rifkind, Caitlin Moran, David Aaronovich, Danny Finkelstein and Matthew Parris are just five writers off the top of my head who are worth reading. But I haven’t logged on to it since the paywall was launched. Even when many Twitterers were recommending an apparently excellent article by Aaronovich on NHS Reform, I did not actually go onto the website and read it. I barely have time to read and digest all the free stuff on the net, let alone paying for more at a time when money is tight.
Yet a little part of me – the part that loves good journalism – wants the paywall scheme to work. As David Simon has said:
the industry is going to have to find a way to charge for online content. Yes, I’ve heard the postmodern rallying cry that information wants to be free. But information isn’t. It costs money to send reporters to London, to Fallujah, to Capitol Hill, and to send photographers with them, to keep them there day after day. It costs money to hire the best investigators and writers and then back them up with the best editors. And how anyone can believe that the industry can fund this kind of expense by giving its product away online to aggregators and bloggers is a source of endless fascination to me.
Another David, Mitchell this time, wrote a typically erudite column on this theme too.
There is nothing morally superior about the Guardian‘s decision to keep its website free – it’s merely a difference of opinion about what is practical. Both News Corporation and the Guardian Media Group are desperate to save the newspaper business in the online age – to find a way of continuing to pay journalists and editors for professionally produced content, rather than surrender newsgathering and the written word to the unaccountable blogosphere.
But a paywall will only work if the journalism is worth paying for. The problem therefore for The Times is that they haven’t done much “must-read” journalism recently. I can’t think of any big investigative projects recently, apart from the undercover work last year on peers’ expenses (and even this year, with Stephen Byers’s “cab for hire” comment). Of course, the Sunday Times’s “Insight” team exposed many important stories over many decades, but this was disbanded four years ago. The chapter in Flat Earth News about the demise of the Insight Team in the 1980s is absolutely heart-breaking, and the most recent massive exposes have been revealed curtosy of other newspapers. It was the Daily Telegraph that broke the expenses story last year, and the Guardian that has covered the absolutely mind-boggling Afghan leak story.
Which, incidentally, the Times has been trying to discredit. Here is a Guardian interview with the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange:
By the time I come to talk to Assange, his very last interview of the week, the backlash is in full swing. “Have you seen this?” he says waving a copy of the Times at me. “Have you seen how much bullshit this is? Have you seen page 13? Do you think I should call [the libel law firm] Carter-Ruck?
“It would be a bit silly for me but I’m tempted to. Just look at the headlines and the photo. What’s the imputation?”
There’s a photo of Assange below a headline that reads “‘Taliban hitlist’ row: WikiLeaks founder says he did right thing”. And next to the photo, another headline reading “Named man is already dead.” The imputation is quite clearly that Assange’s actions have resulted in the man’s death, although in the story itself it makes it clear that he actually died two years ago.
“Is it clear?” says Assange. “Let’s see how much we have to read before we reach that information. It’s not in the first paragraph, second, third, fourth, it’s not in the fifth. It’s not until the sixth paragraph you learn that.”
The Times had splashed on its front page the claims that there are named Afghan sources in the files whose lives are now in danger. It’s pure “self-interest”, he says, designed to undermine the Guardian, the Observer‘s sister paper and one of three publications to publish stories based on the files, the others being the New York Times and Der Spiegel. “You can see that this is coming down from editorial, not up from journalism.”
So, the leaking of documents relating to the war in Afghanistan is bad because it will reveal the names of informants, who have been dead for two years? Neo-cons might have to do better than that.
There’s another recent spat which is even more hurtful. Here’s A.A. Gill, presumably one of the “star writers” we’re meant to want to pay for, ‘reviewing’ a TV programme by Clare Balding:
Some time ago, I made a cheap and frankly unnecessary joke about Clare Balding looking like a big lesbian. And afterwards somebody tugged my sleeve to point out that she is a big lesbian, and I felt foolish and guilty. So I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise. Sorry.
Now back to the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation.
Surprisingly enough, Balding complained. And received this response from the editor of the Sunday Times, John Witherow:
In my view some members of the gay community need to stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status and behave like any other sensible group that is accepted by society. Not having a privileged status means, of course, one must accept occasionally being the butt of jokes . A person’s sexuality should not give them a protected status. Jeremy Clarkson, perhaps the epitome of the heterosexual male, is constantly jeered at for his dress sense (lack of), adolescent mind-set and hair style. He puts up with it as a presenter’s lot and in this context I hardly think that AA Gill’s remarks were particularly cruel, especially as he ended by so warmly endorsing you as a presenter
What an odd reponse. Calling someone a “dyke” is derogatory by definition; similar to calling someone a “Paki” or a “nigger”. How the chutney is this comparable to taking the pee out of someone’s dress sense? Beggars belief.
Also, if Jeremy Clarkson is the epitome of the heterosexual male, we might as well give the world back to the monkeys.
It’s impossible to see the Times paywall working unless they use the money to pay for proper journalists doing proper journalism. At the moment their news team is producing the same, old “churnalism”, whilst the attitude of the Sunday Times editor to jokes about lesbians is disgusting.