Daniel Finkelstein, Executive Editor for Digital at The Times, talks about the paywall on its 1st anniversary.

When, last July, Rupert Murdoch took the decision to erect a subscription paywall around the websites of The Times and The Sunday Times, most people thought he was mad, but the rest of the industry still watched with interest to see how readers would react. Would they be prepared to pay for quality journalism online?

One year on, as News International announces that the number of digital subscribers to The Times and The Sunday Times has exceeded 100,000, it seems they are. But what does this mean for journalists and the industry as a whole? What challenges still lie ahead? And why was it so necessary to introduce a paywall in the first place? We caught up with Daniel Finkelstein, Executive Editor for Digital, to find out more.

The moment I realised that giving content for free was never going to work was… when I was sitting with a journalist friend from another newspaper. I commented that it would never work to start charging people. He said, “well, it doesn’t work to give it away for free either.” From that moment, I knew that people would pay.

Of course there were doubts… we couldn’t be sure that we were right, but we did have faith in our vision. We knew that people were willing to pay for our newspapers, our content and the editing and arrangement of that content and we wanted to preserve those values in our digital editions on the iPhone and Smartphone, our iPad edition and the website.

Everyone predicted a vast drop in readership when we went behind the paywall… but we always knew that was going to happen. When you launch in print, you have very different expectations to when you launch digitally. With the digital subscriptions, it has been a case of starting small and watching the numbers grow daily.

One of the big problems with the free model is… that it is very difficult to monetise and, as a result, it’s very difficult to interest the advertiser. An advertisement on The Times or Sunday Times iPad version, however, is very valuable because people have already paid to see that page.

The iPad was recognised by Murdoch as being very valuable right from the beginning… He was of the view that we needed to be on the ground with it and we’re now at the stage where everyone in the world can read The Times or The Sunday Times in a very easy and convenient way. How can that be bad for journalism?

In the American market they’re talking the industry to death… We realised that we had to reorganise ourselves in terms of what we offered digitally, but hang onto the character and design that has made The Times so successful in the past.

This isn't the end of print… print remains very important to who the Times is. To become a website that also prints a newspaper is, in my view, a bad decision. I subscribe to the New Yorker and The Economist on iPad and think of it as being a brilliantly convenient way of reading the magazines I love.

Going behind a paywall has meant that… as journalists, we are being paid for our copy. It has been great for morale in the office to know where we are going and have some real direction. The paywall also provides a great basis for innovation.

I don’t think we could have gone behind the paywall any earlier… it was adventurous when it was first done and we had to eliminate the possibility that the free content model was ever going to work for us. I’ll be interested to see when the first free newspaper starts making money.

Over the next year… we’ve got quite a lot of work to do on the Android phone, the iPad and other new machines coming out. We also want to make improvements on the site and develop the commercial side in terms of making sure advertisers see the value in what we’re offering through the paid subscription model.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE TIME AND THE SUNDAY TIMES

The Times and The Sunday Times iPad apps are available as part of a digital subscription at £2 for a week. The Times iPad app is also available direct from iTunes at £9.99 for a month while The Sunday Times app is available direct from iTunes for £1.79 a week.

A new iPhone and Android phone app launched for The Times earlier this week. It is currently free for a short period and it will later be included in the digital subscription package.

Emily Jenkinson

7th July 2011