Should news on the web be free? Or are paywalls inevitable? London Press Club debate draws mixed views

 

A top panel from across the media spectrum – chaired by Andrew Neil – came together at the British Library last night to address what The Observer this week called “the big, nagging question that journalists obsess over”: Is paid-for news content the right strategy for commercial success?

Katie Vanneck Smith, chief marketing officer at News UK, argued that it was “the right and only strategy if you are talking about professional, sustainable journalism”. Not an unexpected view from the publisher of The Times and The Sun, now both behind online paywalls, but one endorsed – if less evangelically – by research conducted by YouGov in advance of the debate. Over half of the ‘opinion formers’ – leaders in their fields from business, media, politics and beyond – believe that some form of paywall is likely to become the most viable and long-term sustainable commercial model in the UK digital news market.

However, respondents were less confident when it came to the profitability of paid-for news in the current environment, just over a third of opinion formers and only 16% of the general public. But among those who have paid for news in the last 12 months, 43% believe paywalls can become profitable.

Zach Leonard, managing director digital, The Independent, i and London Evening Standard, described himself as an “equivocal extremist”; having been involved in introducing the successful Financial Times’ paywall but feeling that it wasn’t the right step for his current titles, as it stands.

Nic Newman, digital strategist at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University, called for even more distinctive and unique content from news publishers and argued that the “combination of journalism and technology needs to be taken much more seriously”.

“The question is, are eyeballs behind a paywall more valuable to our clients?” asked Kate Robertson, co-global president of Havas Worldwide. She argued that, not only would paid-for news become commercially successful, advertisers will pay more to access the highly engaged – and data-rich – paywall users.

Vanneck Smith said that the Times now more total customers than it did before the paywall was introduced four years ago and was making more from its duel revenue streams within 15 months. Speaking about the advances in data, she added: “I can tell you exactly how many subscribers Caitlin Moran generates – and how many she annoys!”

The consensus – from the stage and audience alike – was that quality was key in making paid-for news content a sustainable strategy, with a straw poll at the end of the event mirroring the YouGov findings.

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