When News International properties The Times and The Sunday Times of London put up hard paywalls in July 2010 it seemed like their digital strategy had been decided in favour of paying users and against sharing on the web. But now an interview with News International's digital product director Nick Bell, which appeared in Paid Content earlier this week, suggests that The Times is considering making its paywall ever-so-slightly leakier by allowing subscribers to share articles with their direct friends.
Bell is quoted in the article saying that sharing has been "a hotly-debated topic" at the Times headquarters.
He promises that, "over the next six months, you will see us rewarding our paying subscribers with the ability to share amongst their network.... If they want to share content with their direct friends, then we're going to enable that."
However, the author of the Paid Content article, Robert Andrews, stresses that this is not a guarantee that Times content will be free for friends of subscribers. Bell is clear that The Times is not about to switch to a metered paywall like that of the New York Times, but is only interested in giving ""more value to our paying customers."
Bell says that while the Times has been following the experiments of other newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent with social sharing apps on Facebook, "we have yet to see where the true value lies there".
"It's a huge platform," admits Bell, "and a great way to get a lot of eyeballs on your content, to increase your brand presence in that space - but, actually, trying to derive direct monetary value from those users is still a challenge."
Hard paywalls like that of the Times have drawn criticism from others in the news industry. editor in chief of the Digital First Media Jim Brady has called pure paywalls "a huge mistake", commenting that as a consequence "you really lock yourself off from the rest of the internet." The Guardian is another famous advocate of free web content.
On the other hand, successful news sites without paywalls are still struggling to make money. The Daily Mail's website is reportedly the second busiest English-language news site in the world, and recorded just under 85 million unique vistors in November 2011. Nevertheless, according to an article from Paid Content last November, the site is not expected to make a profit until 2013.
News Corp has claimed that The Times' paywall strategy is working. In June 2011 Richard Freudenstein, CEO of News Corp subsidiary News Digital Media said that The Times and The Sunday Times "are making more money from their 79,000 digital subscribers, than they did from the 20 million unique browser they used to have".
Speaking to Paid Content, Bell states that he's been "surprised" by the success of Times digital products, but says "we've now got confidence in the business model.". He also says that that Times' paying digital audience is large: "over a quarter of a million people still have access to our digital products for The Times."
Still, there's no denying that The Times and The Sunday Times are under huge financial pressure. The papers announced around 150 editorial redundancies last October. The month before News International had announced that it would cut 110 jobs from The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun.
Further uncertainty looms as News International continues to deal with the aftermath of the News of the World scandal. Yesterday to company agreed to make payments to 37 victims of phone-hacking, in settlements which The Guardian estimates will cost "well over £1m".
This financial trouble makes it essential that The Times get its digital strategy right. Changes have already been made, as the paper announced in October that it would be moving towards digital integration in its newsroom in an effort to "stop the duplication of production, between print, iPad, website and, most recently, Android".
This week's Paid Content article suggests that The Times might also consider implementing a system of micro-payments for articles at some point in the future, although not until it could be sure that it could create a good customer experience.
Bell's interview with Paid Content sheds light on the type of customers that The Times is appealing to. "The average salary of the (Times') iPad reader is £109,000" said Bell, "over 15 percent of the audience reading the iPad on a daily basis earn in excess of £200,000 a year". Bell is positive about the potential it offers to advertisers: "It's a very attractive audience... The volume has decreased but the value of the audience has gone up."
As further financial pressure looms, and print circulation continues to decline, appealing to a smaller but wealthier audience of more "recession-proof" users may be a key part of The Times' digital strategy.