Johnston Press to charge for local papers online

Johnston Press, the regional newspaper group, is to begin charging for the online content of some of its local titles, in the latest sign that the industry has shifted heavily in favour of making the internet pay.

It emerged yesterday that Johnston Press is introducing "paywalls" on some of the group's websites from Monday; it will be the first UK regional publisher to experiment with the scheme. Online readers of six titles including the Northumberland Gazette and the Worksop Guardian will pay £5 for a three-month subscription .

The group, run by John Fry, will judge whether the experiment has been a success before it rolls out the scheme across all of its newspapers. An internal memo seen by the website Hold The Front Page, said: "Customers are used to paying for content in paper and we are simply transferring this thinking online."

Johnston Press, which also owns The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, said this month that while the slump was easing, advertising revenues in August and September were still down 19 per cent over the previous year.

Newspapers have been searching for alternative ways to boost revenues after suffering a huge collapse in advertising during the downturn. The industry is increasingly looking at charging for its online content as a way to boost earnings.

Earlier this year. the media agency GroupM predicted that advertising revenue at regional newspapers would fall 31.9 per cent this year, a much sharper drop than at the nationals, where it is expected to fall 18.6 per cent. Richard Lambert, the director-general of the CBI, has recently complained that regional titles "are being hammered into the ground" because they can't capitalise on their internet activities.

Kevin Ward, the editor of the Worcester News, believes charging is a viable model for local papers as they provide niche information, such as reporting on local court and council meetings. He said Johnston Press's decision was welcome news, adding: "It's the right way forward."

News Corporation is determined to introduce charges at its titles, including The Times and The Sun, by next spring. James Murdoch, News Corp's chief executive in Europe and Asia, said charging for content would be a "huge shift" for the industry, adding: "I think it's the crucial step in starting to develop a wholesale market in digital journalism".

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