Paywalls are working, says News UK's Mike Darcey

Charging for newspapers online is working and The Times, with its 140,000 subscribers, is now flattered by widespread imitation, according to Mike Darcey, News UK's chief executive.

Mike Darcey: News UK's chief executive
Mike Darcey: News UK's chief executive

Speaking at the Times CEO Summit today, Darcey revealed the number of subscribers at the quality newsbrand has risen by 13,000 since the start of the year, mainly on the tablet, and the figure is growing.

He said: "The Times and Sunday Times moved to become paid-for across all formats in 2010. Initially thought of as a crazy move, it has been successful and is now flattered by widespread imitation.

"Looking at the Times, we already have 140,000 paying subscribers, mainly on the tablet, and it’s growing.

"Just as important, these tablet subscribers spend on average 40 minutes with the tablet edition, very similar to the amount of time spent reading the paper copy.

"So this is a fully engaged experience, not the flitting around associated with free news websites – good news for subscriber retention, and also for our advertisers."

Darcey, the former BSkyB leader, continued: "Competition from free is not a new idea". He noted The Times has been behind the paywall since 1785, while "free" (at the point of consumption) alternatives have evolved, from the town crier to free newssheets, to radio, television and 24-hour rolling news.

He said: "Throughout that time. The paid-for news industry has had to make sure its offering is distinctive, differentiated from those free options, offering added value and articulating why it is worth paying for. And that remains the game today."

The bullish chief executive of the newly named News UK operation went on to say how it was odd that publishers took so long to realise that it couldn't keep asking readers to pay for printed news, while at the same time giving away the content for free online, "in the hope that the first group wouldn't notice, or at least wouldn't react".

He said: "Seems pretty silly when put like that. And many publishers are moving away from that sort of idea. To those who are holding out, I wish them the best of luck."

In relation to The Times, Darcey said the newsbrand had defied all current trends thanks to the early move behind a paywall, to become one of the few titles to actual see its revenue from subscribers rise in the last three years.

He said: "The key insight comes from looking at total paid sales. The sum of casual print, plus print subscribers, plus digital subscribers. And on this basis the Times is ahead of 2010, and there are very few titles that can boast that record in recent years."

Drawing on his 15 years at pay-TV operator Sky, Darcey remembered how in the early days of the satellite broadcaster "some scoffed at the idea".

Sky and others, he said, have shown that if you build strong relationships with distinctive quality content and a great customer experience as regards technology and service, then it is perfectly possible to build a large and loyal subscriber base.

Darcey took a swipe at the "large numbers of unique users and page views" enjoyed by those with a free web presence, saying it "doesn’t generate any meaningful revenue", and "undermines the piece of the business that does make money".

Delving into the free buiness models of popular rivals Mail Online and Guardian, he dismissed it as "good for the ego", but serving no real purpose. He said: "What have we really lost? A long tail of passing trade, many from overseas, many popping in for only one article, referred by Google or a social media link, not even aware they are on a Times or a Sun website, wholly anonymous."

The chief executive also took the opportunity to underline News UK’s core mission to inform and entertain readers, while also standing up to powerful and vested interests, challenge orthodoxy and equip readers to reach more informed views and make better choices in their lives.

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