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Johnston Press paywall experiment quietly dropped

Regional publisher Johnston Press is quietly dropping its experiment in introducing paywalls to some of its local newspaper websites.

As first revealed by HTFP last November, JP imposed a £5 subscription for anyone wanting to read stories in full on some of its local sites, including the Whitby Gazette in North Yorkshire and the Southern Reporter in Selkirk.

However the paywall at the Gazette has now been dropped with full stories now freely available again to users.

In a parellel experiment, some other titles, including the Worksop Guardian in Nottinghamshire, stopped uploading full stories to their websites and told readers to buy the paper instead. This aspect of the trial still appears to be ongoing.

The company has told HTFP it will be making no public comment about the trial and has even refused to confirm that it is coming to an end.

However a source at one of the titles involved in the trial said it had been a “disaster” and that the number of people subscribing had been in single figures.

At the time the trial was first launched, JP’s digital strategy director Lori Cunningham told HTFP: “It’s a small scale trial so we can better understand what the consumer dynamics are around paid-for content.”

However an internal company memo that was seen by HTFP made clear that the trial would be extended if it proved a success.

“The switch to a paid-for model is part of a broader roll-out across Johnston Press and in line with industry moves in this area to find a sustainable business model going forward,” it stated.

“Customers are used to paying for content in-paper and we are simply transferring this thinking online”

The trial was also referenced in JP’s annual report published earlier this month.

“As our content on local communities is often unique, we believe that we are well positioned to test whether users would be prepared to pay for their content delivered through local websites,” it said.

“It is our belief that the issue is not only the willingness of customers to pay for news content but also the ease of payment which particular mechanisms provide.

“No decision has been made to roll-out paywalls across our sites but we remain open to developments in this area.”

The decision to end the paywall experiment comes in the week that Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times and The Times newspapers outlined plans to charge readers £1 a day or £2 a week for access to their new websites.

With the debate over paywalls turning increasingly bitter, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who favours free-to-access web content, hit out at Murdoch in an internal memo that has since been widely circulated across the national media and blogosphere.

The apparently dismal level of uptake for the JP trial is bound to cast doubt on whether paywalls are a viable business model for the regional press.

In its own annual report earlier this week, fellow publisher Archant appeared to come down against the idea, saying most regional newspaper content “does not meet the criteria likely to be necessary for this to work successfully.”


Paul (31/03/2010 11:53:25)
It might have been a bit better for JP to have run the trial on some bigger papers rather than those which uploaded stories once a week. This doesn’t make anyone any more the wiser

Old regional press hand (31/03/2010 11:59:43)
Quite agree Paul. The most obvious titles to have run the trial on would have been the Yorkshire Post and the Scotsman. As well as having much more online content to choose from, they also have a more upmarket readership that might have been prepared to pay more.

localhack (31/03/2010 12:08:44)
even so, the fact that one of the sites, in a town which probably has tens of thousands of people, could only find nine or fewer people to pay is quite telling, isn’t it?

Darren (31/03/2010 12:19:22)
Paywalls do not make sense for the very small regional papers that might soon be overtaken online by the growing number of hyperlocal bloggers anyway.
They would be better off concentrating on maximing their online jobs, cars and property offerings and digital advertising where the money can be made and where if online competitors get it right they could kill the newspapers in the future.

JP Worker (31/03/2010 13:21:27)
Oh dear – sometimes it pays to listen to qualified, experienced journalists on matters of journalism. Not jumped-up little ad reps (who think a sub is a sandwich from the High Street) and accountants who’ve never visited a newsroom. Not rocket science eh?!

Call me cynical (31/03/2010 13:23:42)
Surprise, surprise! There’s was no way this was going to work without unique, quality content being added every hour of the working day. JP doesn’t understand editorial and until it starts investing in journalists it will never make a success of running websites.

Harold (31/03/2010 16:07:36)
The issue with all this is literally that people are used to free online content. Never mind the quality available, it’s the principle that the online community objects to, although local content is simply too narrow in general to keep a lot of people interested on a regular basis. Above all else, this shows that the people who run media groups, and, I’m sad to say, journos too, don’t know enough about the internet, the mindset of users and, most crucially, ways people access information. Come on, how many kids or people who have grown up practically wired into a PC are ever consulted or employed by big media organisations? Few, yet they know how it works. Instead, 40 year old plus NEWSPAPER men think they know how it works. Only in newspapers …. :(

FAST WOMAN (31/03/2010 16:44:48)
Oh Harold ‘Instead, 40 year old plus NEWSPAPER men think they know how it works.’
Well, I’m a 40 year plus Newspaper WOMAN and for years I’ve been tearing my hair out because regional press just doesn’t get it.
You can only build an online paying subscriber base if you have highly specialised / niche info that people believe they must have to stay ahead of the game, whether that’s in business or social.
Local news pasted up by stretched and depleted teams of mainly junior reporters doesn’t even come close.
There has to be added value. That’s why some phone apps are free and others can pull in cash.
Harold, you are right about people being used to free content online.
They’ll find an alternative free source that’s good enough for now. Or go play on Facebook or something instead.
Only we, and a small minority of the general public, see any financial value in what newspapers place online.
We gave them free newspapers and then free online content (the latter often long after free content local community group websites had already been set up and gained loyal followings).
It just won’t work.

Harold (31/03/2010 17:12:19)
Sorry! I’ve never had a woman boss and the men I’ve had are old men who literally have no idea that email is NOT the medium most young people use to communicate these days. Don’t ask me to provide an alternative source of revenue, I can’t, but just know people won’t pay for this stuff. If only the press had not jumped in with both feet and lack of foresight and held their content back. Oh well

Davey (31/03/2010 18:31:52)
“Customers are used to paying for content in-paper and we are simply transferring this thinking online”
Until the newspaper industry finally works out why the above is not true it will continue to head towards oblivion.

Dan (01/04/2010 11:09:45)
I agree with the comments here. The way I see it, newspapers are tying themselves in knots saying people ‘should’ pay when there just isn’t a strong enough market for news. The issue boils down to simple demand and supply. Taking the example of local news, there is often just one local p
aper you can buy in printed form in any given place, but there are numerous ways of accessing local news online, many of which will always be free. The same applies to the nationals – there will always be enough free news for most people’s tastes. The only way ahead for news companies, as I see it, is further cost-cutting and better advertising sales.

Call me cynical (01/04/2010 11:34:45)
In response to Dan: How are you going to achieve better advertising sales at the same time as reducing the editorial content of newspapers? Few people are going to buy an advertising only paper and those that are delivered free will go straight from the letterbox to recycling bin. The problem is that local newspapers have been left with only the local business advertising. Years ago local papers attracted big advertisers like Tesco, PC World and Sainsbury, paying premium rates and subsidising the local advertiser. Now those big companies have great websites and sophisticated e-marketing set ups targeting people they know are their customers from previous buying experience. They don’t need the local paper and without them the paper struggles with only the revenue it receives from small businesses.

Hack-ed off (01/04/2010 12:46:06)
I’m sure we’ve all got it wrong. Pay sites for JP is the right way forward.
Senior JP management don’t make mistakes, surely you know that by now.
They get things “Right first time”.
Do JP employees see what I did there?