More bricks added to paywalls

The focus is on how - rather than whether - to charge for online news, writes Eric Fanner.

The focus is on how - rather than whether - to charge for online news, writes Eric Fanner.

Serraval, France: Newspapers, once reluctant to try to charge readers for access to their websites, have now begun doing so in droves.

Across many of the developed economies of America, Europe and Asia, so-called paywalls are proliferating as publishers struggle to make up for dwindling revenue on their print products. Online advertising, once seen as the great hope for the future, has begun levelling off, which is accelerating the push for new internet business models.

"Why now?" said Douglas McCabe, an analyst at Enders Analysis in London. "The outlook for digital advertising for all but the very largest sites looks increasingly challenging. Therefore, it is critical that news services experiment with subscription models."

The trend has taken in some long-time holdouts, such as The Washington Post, which said last month that it would start charging online readers this northern summer. Elsewhere in the US, the San Francisco Chronicle also recently announced plans to start digital subscriptions, and the total number of American newspapers with paywalls has risen to more than 300.

Fairfax Media's The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last month introduced "metered" monthly charges for international readers of their websites. A metered model - where readers are able to access a number of free articles a month before they are required to pay - will be introduced in Australia and New Zealand later this year.

In Europe, the recent conversion has been even more striking. Last week, the Telegraph Media Group, publisher of the biggest-selling broadsheet in Britain, said it would start charging British domestic readers for access, having previously introduced a paywall for its international audience. The biggest tabloid in Britain, The Sun, also confirmed plans for a paywall.

Last month in Switzerland, Tages-Anzeiger, the largest-circulation quality daily in the German-speaking part of the country, announced plans to switch to a paid online model. It will join its main rival, Neue Zurcher Zeitung, which did so last year.

In Germany, Schwabisches Tagblatt became the 35th newspaper to introduce a paywall. Among the leading national dailies, Die Welt started charging online readers recently, and Bild plans to do so this summer. Other German publishers have said they are weighing the move. "There's hardly anyone left who is resisting the trend," said Tobias Frohlich, a spokesman for Axel Springer, which publishes both papers.

In Asia, too, paywalls are popping up, with publications like the Asahi Shimbun and the Nihon Keizai Shimbun in Japan, and The Straits Times of Singapore, embracing digital payment plans.

The new round of paywall adoption could test some long-held assumptions about online fees. In Britain, for example, the conventional wisdom used to be that it would be impossible for newspapers to persuade readers to pay for general news online. One British newspaper, the Financial Times, was a paywall pioneer; some analysts attributed its success to its specialised business content and the fact that many of its customers pay for their subscriptions through corporate expense accounts.

Certain particularities of the British market make the transition harder for general newspapers in Britain than elsewhere. One is a high rate of newsstand sales rather than home delivery, which predominates in the US and Germany. It is easier to market new services, such as paid online access, to existing subscribers than to anonymous customers at a newsstand.

British tabloids have also had to confront questions about their credibility since the phone-hacking scandal, which resulted in the shutdown of the News of the World, a sibling to The Sun in News Corp's stable.

The popularity of the BBC's news website, which is required to be free in Britain, is a further hurdle for rival online publishers. Yet after the latest round of paywall adoption, only two prominent national British dailies, The Guardian and the Daily Mail, will be available free on the web.

Another notion that is about to be put to the test is the industry belief that tabloid newspapers, specialising in celebrity gossip and other news with a short shelf life and aimed at lower-income readers, might have an especially hard time persuading readers to pay for digital editions. Now the two highest-circulation newspapers in Europe, Bild - a tabloid in content despite its broadsheet format - and The Sun, are about to find out.

Perhaps acknowledging tabloid news will be a tough sell, both papers plan to supplement online offerings with a new kind of newspaper content: football video clips.

Both The Sun and Bild recently acquired online rights to show highlights from the top-flight soccer leagues in their respective countries, the Premier League in Britain and the Bundesliga in Germany.

Bild plans to continue offering general news free; exclusive content, including the soccer clips, will require payment. The Sun says it has not yet decided on a charging mechanism.

Among higher-brow publications, the favoured approach seems to be the so-called metered model, under which casual visitors to a newspaper website are not charged, while those who pass a certain threshold - say, 10 articles a month - are required to pay.

This model, pioneered by the Financial Times and later adopted by The New York Times, lets online papers maintain a broad audience, necessary to sell digital advertising, while obtaining new revenue from the most loyal readers.

The New York Times turned on its metered system two years ago and says it had attracted about 640,000 paying customers to its digital versions by the end of last year. Elsewhere, papers such as Die Welt and Neue Zurcher Zeitung have also taken the metered approach.

In Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post, which for years operated a so-called hard paywall - requiring payment for all access - switched last year to the metered approach.

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