The Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh yesterday noted that Mail Online’s revenues have grown by 69% in the last year, from £16m to an estimated £27m. For Sabbagh, this is vindication of the Mail’s advertising-fuelled approach (and by extension, The Guardian’s) over News International’s much-criticised Times paywall. Since the wall went up, the Times’s growth has been respectable, but there are signs that it may be slowing down, with NI attempting to make up the shortfall with price hikes, particularly for tablet subscriptions.
It’s worth pointing out that even by Sabbagh’s calculations, The Times website appears to be making more through subs that The Guardian’s is through advertising, but any sign of slowing growth is a worry. This is where the Mail’s astonishing success comes in – Mail Online’s growth has been built on a platform of traditional Mail readers, bored office workers and enraged Twitter liberals. It’s difficult to read an article like this recent piece on the French election and not see a calculated attempt to whip up some lucrative, hit-friendly outrage. But it works – the Mail’s online alchemy means they’re making money even from people who hate them with a passion. Who’s likely to pay for a Times online subscription? People who already like The Times, and there’s a finite number of them.
But all this means that Mail Online is fully integrated into the way that news is predominantly consumed in 2012 – and putting journalists into media jobs – as office browsing material or part of a noisy and often chaotic network that includes other news sites, blogs and social media. Whether they’re fuming at a disparaging piece on the NHS, trawling for football transfer gossip or just looking at large pictures of Rihanna in a bikini, it means people click, people link, people debate, and then yet more people click. The Times’s paywall has cut it off from this ecosystem.
That’s not to say that paywalls can’t work under any circumstances. Far from it – parts of the B2B sector have had considerable success by charging for information people have to have and are willing to pay a premium for. They’ve largely done better than their advertising-driven rivals. The less rigid subscription models favoured by the likes of the FT and the Economist have been broadly successful. But these are titles that occupy a particular niche within their marketplace – even a Times exclusive will be followed up by the Telegraph, Guardian or BBC within minutes. News International’s defenders will point out that people have always paid for printed news in the past, but cover prices have only ever represented a small proportion of overall newspaper revenue. If The Times’s online growth is indeed levelling off, it’s time to rethink that paywall.