23 October 2014

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Regional publishing boss signals online paywall plan

A regional publishing boss has declared his intention to introduce online paywalls on his newspapers’ websites insisting: “The reader must pay.”

Robin Burgess, chief executive of the Carlisle-based CN Group, set out his plans in a keynote speech to yesterday’s Society of Editors’ Regional Conference in the West Midlands.

He told industry leaders that newspapers could not continue giving content away online for free, and that although he had not decided when a paywall would be introduced at his titles, he was “fairly certain” it would happen.

The conference, sponsored by HoldtheFrontPage and Marriott Hotels, also saw Local World boss Steve Auckland and Trinity Mirror digital chief David Higgerson set out their own visions of the online future.

Robin told the conference: “For some time I have thought that we can’t continue giving our content away.  The reader must pay.”

He listed charging subscribers as a key component of his future vision for the industry alongside lower overheads, using content from a variety of sources, and quality journalism.

Robin said he has not decided when to put up a pay wall at his titles, but added:  “I am fairly certain it’s going to come.”

In answer to a question from Derby Telegraph editor Neil White, he said he accepted it would lead to a falloff in digital audiences, but argued that advertisers would be prepared to pay a higher yield for “better” subscribers.

Robin’s intervention demonstrates a shifting mood about online paywalls since the Daily Telegraph announced it was introducing one earlier this year.

The last major experiment with paywalls in the regional press was carried out by Johnston Press in 2010 and showed few subscribers willing pay for content.

However since then the concept has gained traction with The Times, the FT and now the Telegraph all introducing different versions of the subscription model.

A recent report by analysts Simon Kucher and Partners predicted an end to the internet free for all, with 90pc of online content set to be behind paywalls within three years.

Neither Local World chief executive Steve nor Trinity Mirror digital publishing director David referred directly to paywalls in their presentations to the conference, although both made clear that digital was central to their plans.

Steve said Local World would be a “24/7 media business” with “unbeatable local online content” allied to a “continued love of print.”

David said that content at Trinity Mirror titles was now being proactively released throughout the day to meet spikes in the online audience.

He said:  “Holding content offline doesn’t sell more papers, it just makes people look elsewhere.  If there is one phrase that should be banned it’s the phrase “for full story, see tomorrow’s paper,” he said.

33 Comments

  1. Frank Brown

    Sorry, but paywalls on regional newspaper websites just won’t work. It’s a simple as that, and the quicker bosses realise this and drop this dud idea the better. The problem is that with social media such as Twitter and Facebook along with other sources of information such as blogs it’s easy to find out about anything happening locally for free. Sure, it may not be the same ‘quality’ journalism you get from a ‘proper’ news source but it’s good enough. Besides, it only takes one subscriber to paste a story from a paid-for website and the content is then out there for everyone to see. Regional media companies need to forget about paywalls and look to alternative and more credible ways of making money from the internet.

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  2. Observer50

    Gosh, I remember some years ago suggesting that giving all my paper’s content away free of charge on a website was commercial suicide. I ventured that perhaps we should just offer web readers a teaser paragraph or two and then either charge them for the rest or encourage them to buy the paper.
    I also recall that I was regarded with contempt and disbelief by everyone else in the room which was full of fellow newspaper managers. They all appeared to believe the tosh which was being uttered by “web experts” that giving free access to all web users was the road to huge riches for newspaper companies….how wrong they were!

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  3. Tony, New York City

    As a direct result of the cuts to newsrooms in the regional press over the last decade, the standard of content has fallen to the extent that I’d be astonished if anyone was willing to fork out to read it behind a paywall.
    Newspaper executives have to realise that something must be worth buying if they plan to charge for it.
    Are they prepared to invest in editorial resources to bring their products back up to scratch? I think we all know the answer to that.
    They want to have their cake and eat it: Starve newsrooms of investment and then charge for the often lamentable products that result.
    And before anyone in the regional press takes umbrage (I was a regional journalist for years), the plummeting circulation figures are proof, in my opinion, that standards are not what they once were.
    With newsrooms being hammered so hard, how could standards NOT suffer?

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  4. Darren Parkin, Canary Islands

    Put up a paywall on a regional newspaper website and you may as well shut the business down.

    A paywall will not leave advertisers happy to pay more per yeild – it will make them see they’re reaching out to a vastly reduced number of potential customers.

    If the intention of the business is to drive readers to look elsewhere for news and information, then go ahead – a paywall will soon have you overachieving.

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  5. tide-timez

    Frank Brown is right: it only takes one subscriber to paste a story from a paid-for website. That pesky subscriber could copy everything over, get rewriting to tap dance round copyright issues and post on a local news portal. Fanciful idea? When I think of all the stuff I’ve written exclusively for my paper only to see it reappear next day as if by magic in another… These editors need to come down from their white ivory tower and get real.

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  6. downnotout

    Observer50 is absolutely bang on. Same here.

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  7. It's a fact

    The news agencies must be rubbing their hands. Subscribe to local paywalls, pick up their stories, rewrite them, sell them on……all before the newspapers which originated the copy hit the streets.
    They do it now; paywalls will just provide them with a quicker service.

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  8. John Beech, Nottingham

    @Observer50 – As I understand it, the websites for the various regional, newspaper groups were originally set up back in the early 2000s, not as a money maker directly but as a way of at least protecting the local newspaper brands in the digital age and keeping an evolving audience in contact with their regional media while also capitalising on the traffic being brought to those websites to drive visitors to, and revenue from, the classified platforms.

    While it’s agreed that profits in the online areas haven’t been what they would have liked, it still remains true that a large part of each regional newspaper’s audience remains in contact with the brand in one way or another thanks solely to the presence of the websites. Without the digital versions, many would have long-since forgotten that their local newspaper even exists.

    I agree with Frank Brown that, while regional newspaper still remains strong and sometimes unique, it is sadly still not valuable enough to the majority of the online audience to pay for. By introducing a paywall, these websites will simply lose their audience to alternative online sources and the brand connection that has been protected for so long by the free online websites will be lost forever. The same would be said of the age-old idea of simply displaying the first 1-2 pars of a story online and expecting online readers to rush out to by the paper to read the rest. It simply wouldn’t have happened then, just like it will never happen now.

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  9. Bluestringer

    It doesn’t matter what newspaper executives think.
    Readers will do what readers have always done – it is they and they alone who will decide whether they “must” pay or not.

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  10. Teddy, Sussex

    If papers are having a mate selling the rubbish that they turn out due to lack of investment who the hell is going to pay for it,I’m most cases it’s yesterday’s news banking on a police press release to get a scoop in today’s climate – all to late to save sadly

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  11. Harold

    As mentioned above – the quality just isn’t good enough to charge for it. Readers should pay, of course, but it’s too late now, along with the poor quality.

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  12. Observer50

    Sorry John Beech….but I was there when it was all happening. There was a flurry of huge and wasteful investment in regional newspaper websites and it was made very clear to all of us that the websites would soon generate huge sums of profit.

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  13. Bill, London

    For all of you moaners saying it doesn’t work there’s already a few examples in London in the South London Press and Southwark News…

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  14. Dave

    “If there is one phrase that should be banned it’s the phrase “for full story, see tomorrow’s paper,”

    I totally agree with this! If I’m reading about some news online – I want the full story online. There is nothing more frustrating or self defeating that this phrase.

    How would you feel if you went to see a film at the cinema and you just got a big announcement saying go back to your local video shop and rent it out ?

    As a format, print doesn’t have many advantages over digital – you can break news online quickly, you have more space to write and you can enhance the story with interactive elements like video, comments and polls.

    In the modern age people fully expect to be catered for on the media they want be in phone, tablet, pc, it’s up to the newspaper groups to find out how to commercialise this not to the readers to adapt to the newspaper groups.

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  15. Welshwolf

    Online readers will only pay for extraordinary content which, according to the mundane twaddle churned out today by hard-pressed regional media journalists, is unlikely to happen.

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  16. grey haired hack

    Let’s not forget the stream of press releases supplied to local papers often ends up on the websites or social media accounts of the people or organisations who originated them in the first place – often before the papers have time to rewrite them to their style. Anybody interested in a particular issue can source local news – of interest – easily and for free this way. Paywalls for local newspapers won’t work. Too many readers are put off by paying £1 or so a time for the printed paper as it is.

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  17. House Rules

    Does anyone remember the JP trial of this a few years back? Dropped after about eight months.

    Numbers of subscribers never released. I worked for JP back then. Rumour was in the company that for one of the sites that the number of people who signed up was fewer than 20 once you took out the staff who had to sign up (getting the cost back through expenses).

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  18. Hard-pressed hack

    Good points made by Tony, New York City. Round after round of cuts in the regional press has indeed meant management sacrificed quality. I have stayed in the regional press and watched it happen all around me. It’s been a dismal and dispiriting business, particularly in the last few years when bosses have used empty phrases like “quality journalism” while culling the experienced operators who provide that thing. Do we have anything left worth selling when the paywalls go up?
    And it is not luddite or reactionary to have resisted the idea of giving away our content in the first place. The regional press has been operating for several years on the principle that, supported by dwindling print revenues, it could give away its product, hoping that one day the digital-only proposition would make commercial sense. Reality is beginning to dawn.

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  19. Kendo Nagasaki

    Most local paper content is not worth paying for, plus many local organisations have their own websites. For example, if I want to know what is happening at Penrith Knitting Circle, I can go to their website rather than pay to read about it.
    And should a major story break on a paper’s patch, the online offering will have to compete with other news websites (BBC, Sky) which, of course, are free.

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  20. Adrian

    If I see a paywall blocking my adventures on the internet, i’ll quickly tap my fingers on three little letters – BBC – and go to that site instead. Top tip for newspapers, do not upload the whole story on to their websites and instead put a paragraph or two to entice the reader to buy the paper!

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  21. Mike Carey

    As others have said, Robin Burgess is wasting his time. The Daily Telegraph currently charges £2 per month or £20 a year for unlimited access to its excellent website. At the most optimistic, he would surely only get 1,000 people paying to view one of his websites. If he charges the same as the DT, that would work out at £24,000 a year – just about enough to pay the salary of one reporter.

    Since Johnston Press and Newsquest have tried and failed to make online paid-for content a viable proposition, what makes Mr Burgess think that he can succeed?

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  22. Steve Dyson

    All good points but, but… surely Robin’s right to say ‘the reader must pay’ as otherwise, who will? Print circulation revenues are down and continuing to fall; advertising revenues are down and continuing to fall; and yet papers still give all content away for free. My point is, is that if these trends continue, then there will be less money to pay for ‘content providers’ and therefore less and less content left to give away. I think Robin’s challenge is a brave one, and that it should be considered carefully by all.

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  23. J. Benjamin Notewort

    Who wants to read yesterday’s news in the newspaper? But there are only so many who will pay to read online, and when the limit is reached, the papers will be in the same dilemma they are now in. It will only stave that off for a year or two.

    I wonder: is news going to be only for those rich enough to pay for it? And the rest of the population wallows in the dark and votes for the wrong politician, and then the country falls apart thanks to the media who are no longer doing what they exist to do?

    I fear you are hastening your demise by giving up your readers while planning to pay a company to implement your paywall – a company that only wants your money and doesn’t care about YOUR company at all.

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  24. Chris Youett, Esq,, Coventry

    This is what IBM & Microsoft – the two most successful multi-nationals in the world – advised the UK media owners to do a decade ago. Just as people will pay for real news in their newspapers, if they really want 24 x 7 online services they will pay for that as well.

    Do we really have to wait for The Guardian to run out of money in thre years’ time to prove the point?

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  25. Biller

    It can work. They just have to not be too greedy.

    Currently for example, the Leicester Mercury website, thisisleicestershire, gets 600k users per month.

    Say if you charged a flat rate of £2 a month for access, and only 10% of those 600k signed up. That’s £120k a month, or £1.4 million per year.

    You could also charge one off access for people at say, £1 a day, or do a one off month at £5. That would push the revenue up to well over £2 million.

    The issue will be that they charge silly amounts like £10 a month – which people just won’t pay.

    What would you rather have – content giving away for free to 600,000 people, or making £1.4million from 60,000 people? We all know that local advertisers don’t like the digital side of advertising, it simply is not effective for them!

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  26. Dave

    I think I could almost accept the idea of paywalls as a web user, however if I did purchase one I would want the site I access to be completely ad-free. Would that happen?

    And from what I’ve seen Biller the rates of take up wouldn’t even reach 10 per cent, you’d be lucky to get 2 per cent.

    Also, there are still significant technical hurdles to setting up paywalls, for example the Telegraph.co.uk seems to be cookie based. I’ve reached the 20 article limit, switch browser to Safari put incognito mode on and hey presto you get more articles to read!

    If a national newspaper can’t effectively master the technology can regional newspaper groups?

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  27. Dave

    “The reader must pay.”

    Notwithstanding Robin’s business capabilities, the reader does and will continue to have ever increasing choices. I for one simply do not buy papers anymore and have not done since Ananova was first published. The baby (internet) is still on the breast, not even starting to crawl yet and like all good parents, Robin possibly should stop thinking he knows what his future teenagers will think or enjoy – purely because he once was one.

    One thing for certain, if the newspaper print industry record to date is anything to go by, then at the next leap of technology, the eds could be left looking into half empty glasses. Whenever the next big techie shake down comes, it will not be led by EIC’s of the paps, more likely to be some 14-year-old techie problem solver. And yes, I do admit a bit of envy, mixed with respect for the kids who are actually the real drivers – and the best of luck to them.

    he accepted it would lead to a falloff in digital audiences, but argued that advertisers would be prepared to pay a higher yield for “better” subscribers.

    A very interesting opinion, although if it held any water would be done now. The fact that he hasn’t done this already demonstrates there is no plan, just words, possibly hope or maybe sounding off. The idea is dead now and it’s not even started to take a breath – to Robin I would say: Forget it, it’s a penguin, it simply will not fly. Which of your existing readers are you wanting to hack off`? because the fact is, they are either already reading your web publications. Or you are going to be finding new mythical readers on a regional level. Complete pie in the sky – advertisers will leave in their droves and your penguin will crash and burn.

    A recent report by analysts Simon Kucher and Partners predicted an end to the internet free for all, with 90pc of online content set to be behind paywalls within three years.

    I hope this prediction is right, because if it is, I will be a very very wealthy person. All of my websites already make a healthy profit. Less competition will simply make my work much easier. They have it all wrong, as yet they have not been able to make money out of their online publications, regionals cannot expect their online readers to pay them when they can get good quality – free of charge. I can’t tell you how frustrating it can be when the established paps indulge in complete churnalism, whilst we pick up the phone, rock up, ask the questions, get the quotes and do it first – and have been doing so for 16 years now. I’ll never forget the local pap a few years back banging on about their reporter being the first on the scene of a major incident. They were, but it was Saturday afternoon, and they didn’t get published until Monday afternoon, they omitted the fact that they were first there – last to publish.

    And here’s the rocket science, if you run a website at a loss – bin it and focus on what you do that makes a profit. Apologies for the get a grip style rhetoric, but that’s the real message here, if what you are doing is a foot shoot – put the gun down, do what you do best… heat – kitchen – out-door
    I’m here, I’m ready and I’m more than able to step in where gaps are left!

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  28. Biller

    Dave,

    Can you give me an example where you get the figure of 2% from? Even working on 2%, that would give an income of 24k per month, 288k a year.

    Thats 288k more than nothing, which is what we get at the moment.

    As for the add free comment, I subscripe to websites now for magazines / different things, and adds still appear. I think you are just being fussy, everyone expects adverts to appear as standard now, on facebook, ebay, sky news, everywhere.

    No other industry gives their products away for free online & charges for it in shops. Would Tesco do it? No, beacuse it’s a flawed business model. I know for a fact that Leicester City council used to have hundreds of Leicester Mercury’s delivered each day. They now have hardly any, as staff can access what they need to for free over the website….

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  29. Outsider looking in

    Biller – do you know if that 600k in unique users includes people who visit the commercial parts of their site, eg motors, property, classifieds, recruitment etc? I suspect it does, in which case the numbers stack up very differently.

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  30. Outsider looking in

    And to Chris Youett … Microsoft now do free versions of its tools like powerpoint and word. For the full version, you pay, but they realised Google was eating their lunch. There are plenty of people out there who are ready to eat our lunch – and more worryingly, a lot of people ready to accept an inferior lunch. They’ll still dip in and out for the bits they want they can’t get anywhere else, but is that enough to make them pay? No. ‘The Reader Must Pay’ argument is a very weak one when people can share their news for free.
    Most of the arguments on here for paywalls make the assumption that everything would be ok if the internet wasn’t around and that no money is made in digital. Both assumptions are very wrong.

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  31. Biller

    Outsider looking in

    The whole point we need a paywall is the number of visitors to those parts of the site are small & advertisers don’t get reponse…..

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  32. Biller

    The reader must pay argument is valid.

    I stress again – would Tesco charge you £40 for a shopping basket in the shop or £0 for the same shopping, on the website?

    The fact is that we give our product away for free day after day and there is no incentive for people to actually buy it.

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  33. Darren Parkin, Canary Islands

    I think the fact this subject has notched up 32 comments already shows this is a massive issue on the minds of those with the newspaper industry in their veins.

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