Society of Editors’ Regional Conference

Top speakers drew a decent turnout at the Society of Editors’ regional conference in April. But the most interesting story was unexpected – when one of Britain’s oldest independent publishers announced that online paywalls were coming. Steve Dyson reports.

By Steve Dyson

It had been a busy morning at the Forest of Arden Hotel in Meriden, near Birmingham; scores of editors and publishers discussing Leveson, regional consolidation and the future of council newspapers.

Speakers had already included Lord Hunt, Chair of the Press Complaints Commission, Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and Steve Auckland, Chief Executive of the new Local World consortium. There was interesting debate aplenty and, as the clock ticked past midday, most delegates had numb bums and groaning stomachs; in short, a journalists’ lunch was pending.

But first there was one more speaker: Robin Burgess (pictured), Chief Executive of the independent CN Group, publishers of the Cumberland News, the Carlisle-based News and Star, the North-West Evening Mail and various other newspapers.

Robin, in his early 60s, is a delightful gentleman from the old-school of independent newspapers, the fourth generation of the Burgess family to be involved in the business. Tall, sturdy and grey, with bright eyes staring through thick spectacle lenses, and ears straining at malfunctioning hearing aids, he ambled through a few PowerPoint slides in his affable way.

The bombshell

He outlined his titles’ recent performances, made a prediction of a modest economic recovery and started to explain the role digital media might play. And then it happened. “For some time, I have thought that we can’t continue giving our content away,” said Robin. “The reader must pay.”

There was a moment’s pause and then, like a rippling effect, an exchange of astonished glances as delegates realised what had been said: online paywalls – an idea long thought to have been dropped by the regional media industry – was back on the agenda at CN Group.

Just in case we thought this was a passing remark, Robin elaborated: “A subscriber is a subscriber, and if you want our service, by whatever delivery method, or through all of them, you will pay.” He added that CN Group had not yet decided on the precise system, or when it might be introduced, but he was “fairly certain it’s going to come”.

Paul Linford, from media website HoldTheFrontPage, was covering the event live, and he published Robin’s headline comments instantly on a blog and in more detail the very next day. His ‘Regional publishing boss signals online paywall plan’ story quickly became – and has remained – one of the site’s most popular reports of the year in terms of hits and feedback.

The response

More than 3,000 words were created in 33 lengthy comments that revealed the breadth of passionate views held by users on the future of online paywalls. Here’s an edited selection of the varied opinions expressed:

* ‘Frank Brown’: “Sorry, but paywalls on regional newspaper websites just won’t work … and the quicker bosses realise this and drop this dud idea the better. The problem is that with social media such as Twitter and Facebook, along with other sources of information such as blogs, it’s easy to find out about anything happening locally for free … Regional media companies need to forget about paywalls and look to alternative and more credible ways of making money from the internet.”

* ‘Observer50’: “Gosh, I remember some years ago suggesting that giving all my paper’s content away free of charge on a website was commercial suicide. I ventured that perhaps we should just offer web readers a teaser paragraph or two and then either charge them for the rest, or encourage them to buy the paper. I was regarded with contempt and disbelief by everyone else in the room full of fellow newspaper managers. They all appeared to believe that giving free access to all web users was the road to huge riches for newspaper companies … how wrong they were!”

* ‘Tony, New York City’: “As a direct result of the cuts to newsrooms in the regional press over the last decade, the standard of content has fallen to the extent that I’d be astonished if anyone was willing to fork out to read it behind a paywall.”

* ‘Bill, London’: “For all of you moaners saying it doesn’t work, there’s already a few examples in London in the South London Press and Southwark News.”

* ‘Welshwolf’: “Online readers will only pay for extraordinary content which, according to the mundane twaddle churned out today by hard-pressed regional media journalists, is unlikely to happen.”

* ‘House Rules’: “Does anyone remember the JP trial of this a few years back? Dropped after about eight months. Numbers of subscribers never released. I worked for JP back then. Rumour was that for one of the sites that the number who signed up was fewer than 20, once you took out the staff who had to sign up (getting the cost back through expenses).”

* ‘Kendo Nagasaki’: “… many local organisations have their own websites. For example, if I want to know what is happening at Penrith Knitting Circle, I can go to their website rather than pay to read about it. And should a major story break on a paper’s patch, the online offering will have to compete with other news websites (BBC, Sky) which, of course, are free.”

* ‘Mike Carey’: “... Since Johnston Press and Newsquest have tried and failed to make online paid-for content a viable proposition, what makes Mr Burgess think that he can succeed?”

* ‘Biller’: “It can work. They just have to not be too greedy. Currently, for example, the Leicester Mercury website, thisisleicestershire, gets 600k users per month. Say you charged a flat rate of £2 a month for access, and only 10% of those 600k signed up. That’s £120k a month, or £1.4 million per year … What would you rather have – content given away for free to 600,000 people, or making £1.4 million from 60,000 people? … No other industry gives their products away for free online and charges for it in shops. Would Tesco do it?”

* ‘Darren Parkin, Canary Islands’: “I think the fact this subject has notched up 32 comments already shows this is a massive issue on the minds of those with the newspaper industry in their veins.”

The nationals dimension

The paywall debate has been bubbling along for some time within the national marketplace, of course, with the Guardian insisting that all internet content should be free, while News International continues to experiment with subscriptions. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph has introduced a ‘metered’ paywall system, allowing users free access to up to 20 online articles a month – after which they are charged £1.99 a month, or £20 a year.

And even Viscount Rothermere, heading the Daily Mail & General Trust, has said the company is “actively thinking” about charging readers to access some website material with a ‘freemium’ model – charging for certain premium content – although he has stressed there are no plans to hide the main MailOnline site behind a paywall.

But until CN Group’s plans were revealed, the regional media had been silent for some time about paywalls. The ensuing debate seemed to trigger conversations and action in the sector. Shortly after attending the Society of Editors (SoE) conference, Kevin Ward, editor of the Newsquest-owned South Wales Argus, directly asked his readers about the subject in a blog entitled ‘How much would you pay for news?’

Kevin said: “The current business model for newspapers, like the Argus, that allows free access to the bulk of editorial content online is unsustainable in the long term. How can we continue to charge readers for a printed copy of our newspaper but allow them to read much of its content for free online?

“There is, of course, a counter-argument that says news is free because online consumers expect it to be so. But is it? There is a cost to producing news. Therefore it must have a value. That is basic economics.

“At some point in the not-too-distant future, I believe all newspapers will charge for access to their websites. The acid test then will be how many people who currently read the Argus site, for instance, would be willing to pay to continue doing so.”

While not a paywall as such, a different model launched in June, was the Business Daily ‘tablet edition’ created by Trinity Mirror’s Birmingham Post, reshaping and repackaging content into an online page-turner app for £9.99 a month. Around the same time, a ‘replica newspaper’ app was launched of the Birmingham Mail for free, seemingly encouraging readers who own the technology to stop paying 50p a day – 70p on Saturdays – for the printed version.

It’s too early to know whether either experiment can collect enough paid or free subscriptions to attract new advertising, but Trinity Mirror’s use of the latest technology to carefully try out two different concepts certainly seems to have excited the marketplace.

Turning back to Robin Burgess’ SoE address on 15 April, here’s a little more on why he thinks paywalls are needed: “I’m predicting that there will be a recovery in advertising. It won’t be massive, but when the economy is back in full swing, we’ll go up by, say, 5%.

“We will have to put more thought into the digital offering, and we need more research to find out how digital advertising works, or doesn’t work. We’ll also need more digital savvy sales staff. But while digital revenues will grow, it won’t be enough to replace what we used to have [in print]. So how do we prosper? … Tablets, mobiles and websites will be part of our offering … [and] the reader must pay.”

As InPublishing went to press, I went back to Robin to confirm his latest thinking on the new paywall debate he’d sparked – and for any indication of timescales for CN Group’s plans.

He emailed me: “It is very much on the agenda and I haven't changed my view since the SoE conference. I remain convinced readers will have to pay something for the service from us, [as] ad revenues alone won't work. I'm open minded about either a ‘complete’ wall or a ‘so many’ stories free then ‘so much’ per story after that system.

“When at CN? I believe we have to deliver apps and improved websites for a slightly younger audience before we can move. We are at present considering a new computer system for editorial which should allow us to be more flexible and efficient at digital delivery. This is likely to mean we won’t take a final decision until spring 2014. Who knows, the world might have moved on by then!”

In a postscript, Robin added: “I'm still convinced we will also have good newspapers long term as well.”

Delegates from the following newspapers attended the SoE conference: Belfast Telegraph; Bolton News; Coventry Telegraph; Derby Telegraph; East London Advertiser; Hereford Times; Kentish Gazette; Kent Messenger; Lincolnshire Echo; Medway Messenger; News and Star, Carlisle; North-West Evening Mail; Sunday Post, Dundee; Scarborough News; South Wales Argus; Staffordshire Newsletter; Swindon Advertiser; The Leader, Mold; and Worcester News.