Times Online will relaunch next spring as paywall goes up

The Times must meet the “commercial necessity” to innovate before raising the paywall next year, say Times Media’s digital development head Hector Arthur and News International’s strategy and product development director Dominic Young.

Two weeks after all hell broke loose with stories, many exaggerated, that Rupert Murdoch is ready to accept a big Microsoft cheque for their news, Arthur and Young joined me on a panel discussion, about this very paid content topic, convened by that same Microsoft at its MSN UK HQ, before a small audience of fellow MSN content suppliers.

And, while many of us fret on their behalf about their chances of success, they were calm and relaxed…

Asked if a paywall-locked Times Online wouldn’t simply disappoint advertisers, Arthur said: “It’s important we talk with the ad agencies to figure out how things will be in that world … we need a constructive dialogue … (but) it’s just another challenge, it’s not a huge big deal, the script isn’t written … We’re having conversations with our advertisers where we’re talking about our advertising, our product, about how we measure success – we’re defining that.”

Asked if he was worried by a new Economist poll that shows how most Telegraph.co.uk readers (as an illustration) also spent most of their news time on rivals’ sites, Arthur said: “The fact that people want to be promiscuous on the internet doesn’t alarm me at all.”

And, shown paidContent:UK’s recent research, which revealed how 74% of readers polled would not pay for online news, he said: “It’s no great surprise – there’s opportunity to convert in the not-sures” (12% of those polled). Young added later: “A small part of the audience is ready to go that way.”

News International is on-record as saying a relaunched Times Online will go paid-only from next spring, with a new Sunday Times site, also pay-for, to be spun off soon after…

That seems to end the integration of recent years that had married formerly disparate sites’ content at a single destination. Indeed, it sounds very much like the Sunday plan, led by Sunday Times executive editor Tristan Davies, is an entirely distinct project from the daily strategy.

Arthur himself is concentrating on making the daily Times Online work: “For me, it was quite liberating to make the decision, quite early on, which way we were going in the editorial team. We’ve been focusing on what will that mean for the reader … and what will that mean for our journalism.” Within that, he’s emphasising presentation: “It’s important to innovate around how you deliver.” And Young echoed: “What they’re buying is the package, the curation, the journalism, the opinion.” How these considerations will manifest themselves in the new sites isn’t clear…

Some observers have wondered if there’s more to Times Online’s strategy than meets the eye; perhaps only parts of the site, for particular audiences, will be chargeable… but no, it sounds more like one big wall.

When I suggested the package Young described needs to bring something new, rather than just charges for existing content types, Arthur concurred and assured: “We want to innovate … it may be a commercial necessity … we want to find more compelling ways of getting our journalism across. We’re doing so now, in preparation for what’s to come. We will differentiate our product.

Young said: “‘Paywall’ sounds like this prison … undoubtedly, there’s a lot of shades of grey – payment isn’t a barrier to buying things – but the price has got to be right … you need to create contrast in the market.”

And what of our hosts? Asked about those recent reports Bing is offering the likes of Times proprietor News Corp payments for preferential crawling conditions, MSN UK executive producer Peter Bale wouldn’t elaborate beyond last week’s Microsoft statements from online services VP Satya Nadella and online audience VP Yusuf Mehdi

But his pitch to the news publishers in the room, as many of them consider whether to follow the Times, is clear: he’s positioning MSN as sympathetic to publishers’ predicament, cogniscent of staying on the right side of copyright law and ready with a commercial arrangement that might satisfy all sides: “I know deeply and personally the cost of maintaining foreign correspondents around the world. Therefore, we respect the intellectual property and value of all the content we get from you – whether PA, Endemol, Reuters or ITN – we appreciate the value of all of this content.

“News has been unusually strong for us in the last couple of years – profitable and outstripping growth on the rest of the site. We’re not trying to duplicate what you do, we’re not going to recreate a large news agency, there are too many excellent services out there. We do want to bring in additional voices – there’s an enormous appetite for straight, individual voices.”