London Times finds some success in paywall experiment

Posted June 24, 2011, at 5:51 p.m.

PARIS — Online news, video, and music providers are becoming increasingly open to charging for at least part of their content as paywall experiments by pioneers like London’s Times show that some customers will pay.

Music-video streaming site Vevo, Huffington Post owner AOL, and London’s Independent newspaper said this month they may introduce paid subscriptions, joining The New York Times and London’s Times in charging for online material. Making that pay will require careful execution and compelling content.

Paywall advocates have had some success convincing Internet readers to sign up for subscriptions. New York Times Co., which began charging heavy users of its namesake paper’s website in March, has signed up more than 100,000 people for online subscriptions that start at $15 a month, it said in April. London’s Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., had 80,000 paid online subscribers as of March.

“The mood is changing,” said Charlie Beckett, the director of the Polis media research unit at the London School of Economics. “Murdoch and the New York Times have taken the leap, and that encourages people. It’s still a leap.”

Alex Hole, who manages the London Times’ digital strategy, said at the Cannes Lions media conference this week that the newspaper’s paywall is “starting to see tangible returns.”

For advertisers, who still provide the bulk of newspapers’ revenue, yields and response rates have also risen, he said, declining to discuss specific numbers. The London Times’ paywall, started a year ago, may be the most impermeable in the industry, with no free articles available online. The New York Times, by contrast, allows casual readers 20 free stories a month.

Most media executives considering paywalls say they’ll be cautious about where they’re erected, and maintain significant free services.

At New York-based AOL, which is re-positioning itself as a provider of online content after undoing its $124 billion merger with Time Warner, future paid subscriptions might focus on business-to-business content rather than consumer brands such as the Huffington Post, Chief Executive Officer Tim Armstrong said this week in Cannes.

Vevo, which is backed by Vivendi and Sony’s music arms, will always have an extensive free offering paid for with ads but may eventually charge for access to exclusive live events or better video quality, according to CEO Rio Caraeff. European music site Spotify, meanwhile, in April reduced the amount of music available free to users in a bid to get more people to buy an $8 monthly subscription.

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