Saying no to the paywall doesn't mean saying yes to another online newspaper

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 8 July 2010

I had a bit of banter on Twitter this week with Ian Douglas from The Telegraph about the impact of 'the great paywall' on the sites where we work. I raised the spectre that possibly the only segment of The Times audience we might inherit would be people who enjoy trolling newspaper comment threads.

I doubt that will be the case, but there does seem to be an underlying assumption in media commentary that Times' readers unwilling to pay for access will automatically jump ship to somewhere like the Guardian or the Telegraph. I think this continues to view our industry through the prism of the newsagent.

When Today ceased publication in November 1995, the world wide web was only a couple of years old, and print readers had to choose to not buy a paper, or to shift to one of a limited number of options.

The web isn't a newsagent. It is rather more like the table in a library with newspapers scattered across it, ready to be picked up and browsed at will.

And unlike the newsagent, that library table is no longer confined to publications 'registered with the Post Office as a newspaper'. There is no reason not to suppose that a chunk of online Times readers might just give up on all newspapers websites. They may well reason that whilst they might miss out on some opinion and columns, sites like CNN, the BBC, MSN or Yahoo! do a pretty good job of conveying "what is going on" without them having to cough up cash or betray their old readership loyalties.

And that shift won't be measured by the print-centric ABCe figures the industry uses as a benchmark. Paywall or not, those figures still only compare the performance of a very small vertical of news websites that also happen to own printing presses.

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