The New York Times this morning posts a not-very-good look at the paywall strategy of the Financial Times’s Web site.
There’s not much new here, just a sort of roundup of information already out there about the FT, which gives registered users ten free stories a month and then forces them to subscribe if they want to read more. It and The Wall Street Journal are the only major newspapers to successfully charge for their content online.
Some of this story is kind of sloppy. For example:
And one by one, other publishers are starting to see wisdom in the paper’s ways. Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of the News Corporation, said this month that the company intended to charge for all its news Web sites. That plan would have the company’s major newspapers in the United States, Britain and Australia joining their sister newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, which already charges for access to most of its site.
The WSJ had “the paper’s ways” long before the FT itself did. It charged for its site from the get-go.
And it contributes to the misleading storyline about the NYT’s own flawed experiment with paid content—Times Select—which put opinion rather than news (it should have been the other way around) behind a paywall, unhelpfully calling it “some content”:
That is a big change from 2007, when The Times site abandoned a pay wall for some content, concluding that it was restricting the potential for online advertising, despite the site’s having attracted 227,000 paying customers.
The NYT story’s numbers are incomplete, too. Check this out:
FT.com has not attracted a huge paying audience, with about 117,000 worldwide, up from 101,000 in 2007. That is far short of the one million paying customers of The Journal’s Web site.
Yet FT.com is lucrative because it charges a premium for its content. A premium subscription to the Web site, with access to all content, costs $300 a year in the United States. Adding the print version costs $100 more.
A casual reader might think all 117,000 subscribers pay $300 a year—there’s no discussion here of the standard subscription and what it costs ($181 a year) or how many subscribers buy the premium package. I’ll bet you most go for the lower-priced one.
Reuters’s Felix Salmon notes that the story cites the FT’s launching of a $4,000-a-year China newsletter, but doesn’t report whether anybody’s actually subscribed to the thing.
The NYT does report that Web circulation revenue is up 30 percent from last year because of higher rates, but it’s hard to get a real handle on any of these numbers. How lucrative is the Web business really? There’s no sense of how the $20 million or so in subscription revenue (my very rough guesstimate) it gets fits into the overall revenue picture of the paper, though that’s in large part because Pearson doesn’t break out the FT’s numbers. Surely it could at least have gotten a quote from the paper alluding to that.
And then there’s this:
Despite the downturn, advertising remains an important revenue generator for newspaper Web sites. Rob Noss, who runs the luxury group at Mindshare Worldwide, a media buying agency, said it was still unclear how readers of newspaper sites would respond to advertising if they were required to pay for access to the sites.
“My personal view is that if I’ve paid for the information, my openness to the advertising will be affected,” he said.
I think most readers understand, having read newspapers for years, that advertising is a key part of the industry’s business model, one that subsidizes the cost of their subscriptions.
It is interesting that the print edition’s circulation has tumbled 7 percent in the last year. One of the main reasons I think paywalls ought to be considered is because they help stop cannibalization of a profitable product (the newspaper) by a deeply unprofitable one (the ad-only Web site). This number dents that idea a bit, though there’s no way of telling whether that 7 percent decline would have been more if the Web site were free. But the NYT doesn’t attempt to explain why, in a year when the interest in financial news has skyrocketed, the FT’s circulation is down so much—while its competitor, the Journal, is up.
Lastly, the NYT doesn’t explore the obvious: that the FT’s website is just not very good. It’s ugly. It’s not user-friendly. It needs a lot of work. It’s no fun paying good money for something as poor as that, the main reason I recently declined to renew my Web subscription and now stick to the print paper, which is a far better information-delivery system than its Web site.Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.