World newspapers mull paywalls

2013-06-03 08:48
Wits journalism professor Anton Harber wrote in a column that SIM consortium head Iqbal Surve was being secretive about the purchase of INM.

Wits journalism professor Anton Harber wrote in a column that SIM consortium head Iqbal Surve was being secretive about the purchase of INM. (Shutterstock)

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Bangkok – Global newspaper chiefs have some rare good news to share after years of slumping print sales and advertising revenues – readers appear increasingly willing to pay for online news.

Over 1 000 newspaper editors and other media figures are meeting in Bangkok this week as papers continue to shed readers –  at least in the older markets – and the shift to the internet draws more "eyeballs" but lower ad rates.

Press freedom, journalist safety, the use of new technology and future trends in print and advertising will also be discussed at the four-day annual World Newspaper Congress, which runs until 5 June.

The issue of charging readers for web and mobile content looms largest, with editors casting an envious eye at media groups who have successfully implemented "paywalls" after years of giving away news for free.

"The general impression was that it would be impossible to reverse the culture of free (online) content... that people will never pay for it," said Gilles Demptos of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

Success

"The great news is that it is changing dramatically," he added, citing the boom in paid-for online subscriptions for the "high-quality" journalism of the New York Times and Financial Times.

Last month the New York Times became the second most-read US daily newspaper, with a circulation of over 1 million, boosted by 325 000 new digital readers – who have joined since a paywall was introduced in 2011.

For $35 a month subscribers gain unlimited access to the New York Times' website and mobile apps, while casual visitors to its website can still read 10 articles without charge per month.

The paywall trend – either full or "metered" – has tentatively taken off across the world, although many publishers closely guard the numbers of paying subscribers signed up.

Newspapers have few choices, said Demptos, as advertisers continue to balk at spending on a diffuse online audience the sums editors want – and need – to sustain quality journalism.

"It's often repeated that a dollar in print becomes a dime online," Demptos said, adding that the US's biggest publisher, Gannett Company, has introduced paywalls on all of its 80 websites, while metered access was offsetting ad declines at Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.

Challenges

While that should be a harbinger of better times ahead, analysts say it is a model that may only buoy top-end titles, such as the New York Times, even though just a fraction of its unique users now pay for content.

"There are many newspapers that are not very good that are trying to charge and I do not believe that will work," says media commentator and blogger Jeff Jarvis, of the City University of New York.

Moreover, the newspaper industry's "infatuation with paywalls" was encouraging it "to replicate its old, industrial business models in a new, digital reality," he said, adding the real problem remains a lack of "engagement" with web communities.

Those young, tech-savvy communities are increasingly receiving their information on reader-driven social news sites such as BuzzFeed.com or Reddit, which says 70 million people visited its site last month.

Newspapers should prioritise "building a stronger relationship with the public we serve," Jarvis said, warning success in doing so will dictate the odds of long-term survival.

But it is not all doom and gloom for news chiefs, with many Asian print markets booming in parallel with their economies and increasingly literate and aspirational populations.

"I have absolute confidence in Asia," said Pichai Chuensuksawadi editor-in-chief of Thailand's Post Publishing, which counts the daily Bangkok Post in its stable.

"It's still a growth market driven mainly by China, India and Indonesia," he said, citing new print products – such as giveaway commuter papers – being gobbled up by the Thai public as signs of a regional market in robust health.

In neighbouring Myanmar, relaxed censorship following the end of military rule has transformed the media sector, with privately owned daily newspapers hitting the streets in April for the first time in decades.

The congress will also hear from the team behind Ebela, a newspaper launched in Calcutta in 2012 aimed at young people which now sells 300 000 copies a day.


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