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NI clearly threw in the kitchen sink to get Times online past the magic 100,000 mark

03 Nov 2010  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Raymond Snoddy

Raymond Snoddy reveals all from the MediaPro conference - Guardian News and Media is making more money from its online dating service than NI is from Times online; The Independent's new i has only been selling around 125,000 a day; and Lebedev says the Standard and The Independent are "definitely doomed" if they stay as they are...

Tim Brooks, managing director of Guardian News and Media, put the first subscription numbers from News International on Times online into a certain perspective yesterday at the MediaPro conference.

"We're probably making more money from our online dating service," said Brooks who emphasised in his keynote the unshakable Guardian theory of "links not walls".

At the same time, Dan Sabbagh, former media editor of The Times, now head of media and technology at The Guardian, was spelling out what that openness means in practice.

The NI press release announcing "105,000 digital sales for The Times and The Sunday Times" was a masterpiece of the spinners art

The Guardian's door would now be open to independent media sites and bloggers - building partnerships by offering linking and visibility and potentially, even advertising.

The Guardian's openness will extend to Sabbagh himself. He will be able to keep and contribute to the media website he founded beehivecity, and naturally The Guardian will provide links.

Brooks was diplomatic about Times online - early days, numbers will grow over time, everyone is trying to find new ways of doing the newspaper business etc. But although The Guardian is not averse to earning some money on line - Guardian Soulmates and iPhone one off charges - the contrast with the News International approach could scarcely be more complete.

The NI press release announcing "105,000 digital sales for The Times and The Sunday Times" was a masterpiece of the spinners art - precise on the best possible gloss on the highest possible feasible headline numbers, more vague on what they mean.

While it's not a totally catastrophic start the closer you look at the Times' numbers the less impressive they appear

Clearly they threw in the kitchen sink to get past the magic 100,000 transaction mark. The figure includes single one-day purchases, the Kindle and iPad applications.  The monthly subscriptions, a better guide to sustainable, continuing business amount to "around half" of the 105,000 total.

Half would be 52,500. But its not half and obviously not close enough to half to give a precise number. So the figure is probably closer to 45,000 and then it's across three months. We don't know whether the total contains individuals who signed up for one month and cancelled or whether iPad subscribers have been cancelling their paper copies to save money.

While it's not a totally catastrophic start the closer you look the less impressive it appears.

Then there are the 100,000 joint digital/print subscribers. That's a fine and dandy number. But how many of those have simply registered because they can do so for free and don't actually make much use of the service.  I am one of those.

Jim Chisholm concludes that these first published results must represent a disappointment for The Times team

James Murdoch has expressed "excitement" at the progress made in such a short time and we will allow him the excitement at the initial achievement.  The true test will come when the paywalls are 12 months old and further and better particulars are published.

For the newspaper industry's sake it would be best if two viable online models emerged - paid-for and free. It is too early to say whether that is at all likely.

What is certain is that The Guardian reaches more than two million people a day online and that The Times used to attract 1.2 million.

Newspaper consultant Jim Chisholm notes that now the best possible daily online performance is 205,000 but that a realistic - and very optimistic - assumed maximum would be around 120,000 a day. Chisholm concludes that these first published results must represent a disappointment for The Times team.

Going forward Chisholm believes there are three key questions to be addressed: retention levels of subscribers; online reading behaviour and frequency of use; and value of print registrants online.

At MediaPro, Brooks celebrated the range and creativity of experimentation in the industry including the launch of the i by Lebedev's Independent.  First signs are not great. Industry sources believe that the paper has been selling around 125,000 a day last week.

"If we leave things as they are at the Standard and The Independent we are definitely doomed in a few years time," Lebedev

There has been some puzzlement at the relatively low key marketing campaign - mainly limited to outdoor.  Conspiracy theorists ponder whether this is just the opening barrage to be followed by a big marketing splash in January once the paper has been properly tweaked by the paper's new supreme Stefano Hatfield.

Just how vital projects like the i are to the future of The Independent and the Evening Standard emerged in an interview given by their owner Alexander Lebedev in Moscow recently.

Lebedev told Bloomberg that he has ploughed £30 million into the Standard and The Independent over the past two years.  "If we leave things as they are at the Standard and The Independent we are definitely doomed in a few years time," said Lebedev.  "Every month I'm taking money out of my pocket and putting it into the papers," he added.

A slightly more optimistic note was struck in the same article by Andrew Mullins, managing director for the Evening Standard and Independent newspapers, who forecast that the Standard will break even at the end of 2012.

Maybe Brooks got it right when he turned Churchillian and said that "we are at the end of the beginning" in the search for new ways of financing quality journalism.

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