Ian Burrell: 2013 is a tipping point for online news, as Britain's paywalls go up

Media Studies: The mood has changed. Across the Atlantic, many publishers have adopted a new stance
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The Independent Online

In the history of British newspapers, March 2013 may go down as a pivotal month, a tipping point when the idea of charging for online general news content finally gained credibility.

For the past three years, the concept of the paywall has been written off by some as either the eccentric indulgence of Rupert Murdoch's cash rich News Corp (which began charging for digital access to The Times on 2 July 2010) or the prerogative of the Financial Times, whose wealthy readers could hardly afford not to subscribe to its specialist business content. For all other publications, so the digital soothsayers advised, the web "demanded" to be free.

And then last week, there was a dramatic shift in the debate. The publishers of the Daily Telegraph crossed the floor and announced a metered charging system. Once the user had clicked on 20 free stories in a month they would be denied further access without paying £1.99 a month, or £9.99 month for a deal that includes all tablet editions.

Within 24 hours, Mike Darcey, the chief executive of News International, had revealed plans to charge for The Sun online. Not only was this a statement of confidence in its experiment with The Times it was a gamble that users will pay for digital access to a brand which is heavily dependent on entertainment news, one of the most freely-available and competitive markets on the internet. "I will be looking to iron out any inconsistencies and make The Sun a very clearly and consistently paid-for proposition," he said, making clear that the move was also about preventing erosion of the paper's print circulation.

Nobody in a room crowded with media journalists on the 10th floor of News International was laughing at Darcey. No one sarcastically shouted: "Good luck with that!" as they may have done a few years ago.

The mood has changed. Across the Atlantic, from where signals first emerged – more than a decade ago – that newspapers could only survive by getting their content online as rapidly as possible and disseminating it widely and for free, many publishers have changed their stance.

Press+, a company that has helped 400 American publishers to set up metered paywalls, reports that its clients are growing increasingly confident about the willingness of consumers to pay for online news. Paywalls are kicking in sooner – the average is after just 10 articles per month – and subscription rates are being increased (from an average of $6.85 a month in January 2012 to $9.26 in January 2013).

This is why Warren Buffett, who is never less than careful with his cash, invested $344m (£226.6m) in American newspapers last year and why he recently criticised the Pied Pipers of "free" for marching towards "the steps of the bankruptcy court". Buffett singled out for praise the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which introduced a partial paywall as early as 2002, and has seen print circulation stand up well.

All newspapers may end up owing a debt of gratitude to trailblazers such as the New York Times, whose metered model was the inspiration for the Telegraph. Thanks might also be offered to Apple, which through iTunes has done so much to breakdown the psychological barriers to making micropayments online. Just as technology has caused so much disruption so it has the capacity to offer solutions, and the improved development of tablets and other mobile devices will only enhance the experience of consuming digital news content – and the willingness of users to pay for it.

Of course, American newspapers, few of which have a national footprint, make up a very different market from that on this side of the water. But the struggling British regional press must surely draw comfort from the growing evidence of the value of online local news.

For the national press in Britain –traditionally so innovative but in this regard more cautious than the Americans – the outlook remains unclear. The free availability of the BBC website is regarded as a major obstacle despite the broadcaster's protestations that newspapers have suffered declines in countries where there is no equivalent publicly-funded online news service. One senior News International executive has already lobbied incoming BBC Director General Tony Hall to further scale back the ambition of the corporation's site.

Just as important are the free access strategies of the likes of the Daily Mail's MailOnline and The Guardian's website. Darcey was sceptical of such an approach. "It seems like quite a bold and courageous bet to bet the whole business on advertising revenue as your only source of revenue, particularly when … the online environment is characterised by exponential expansion in supply, which leads to pretty consistent downward pressure on price," he said.

"That looks to me like it risks getting into a downward spiral of reduced revenues and the need to cut costs materially year-on-year. Perhaps you end up with a very small business that is profitable but only about 15 paid-for journalists in it." He had intended to be even more scathing of free models but was wary of offending his guests. But the Telegraph model – which uses some free content as a marketing device, to allow stories to be visible in searches and be shared on social media – he will be watching "very closely" as a possible winning formula. As one News International executive said: "We might even show a bit of leg ourselves."

BBC pins hope on Hall heralding a fresh start

Tony Hall's first day as Director General of the BBC tomorrow will begin with a meeting with the Management Board, when he will ask for updates on the programme of financial cuts and for the latest news from the two internal reviews being led by Dame Janet Smith and Dinah Rose QC on bullying and harassment at the BBC, past and present.

He will then head out into an open plan area in New Broadcasting House to address several hundred staff in a rallying speech that will be filmed and broadcast internally. TV crews from rival broadcasters have been invited to capture footage of the former Royal Opera House boss on his first day back at what is really his alma mater.

The BBC hopes his arrival will be the "Division Bell" moment that allows it to move on from the unsavoury Jimmy Savile episode that caused the downfall of his predecessor George Entwistle. It was only in September that Entwistle was arranging the furniture in his new office on the 4th floor. Hall will work from the same location – let's hope he lasts longer than 54 days.

Wave goodbye to reporting on the underworld

The funeral of Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds was bathed in nostalgia. It felt like the passing of an era, not just for a generation of old school British villains like Ronnie Biggs, but for the corps of people who have made a living from reporting on their nefarious deeds.

Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper, who hunted the train robbers, is no longer with us – but Reynolds had "Brunt of the Yard" to read a eulogy. Martin Brunt, the "Sky News" crime correspondent, later posed at the wake with Freddie Foreman, henchman of the Kray Twins. Today's gangsters are often crassly celebrated in film but have no interest in the news media.

These are tough times for crime writers. Police relations with journalists have frozen over. Last week, a former Surrey officer was jailed for selling information to "The Sun". Several reporters have been arrested over similar allegations. Any contact with the underworld could be as damaging to a crime hack's professional reputation as it might be to their physical well-being. Times change. C'est la vie – as Bruce Reynolds used to say.

Twitter: @iburrell