OFF THE GRID

The Paywall Revolution Could Actually Be a Revolution

May 19, 10 | 7:53 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Rupert Murdoch puts up a paywall around his Times and Sunday Times in London next week. The New York Times is indicating it will put its wall up in January.

So what happens to the news world when most people no longer get their news from the most established sources? This is a different question than whether Murdoch or the NYT can make a viable business—or at least gain a meaningful contribution to their costs—from a paying, albeit smaller, audience. This is about what happens to the 90%—and by some estimates 99%—of the audience that will change its daily news habit rather than pay. By some estimates this could be more than 50 million people suddenly untethered.

What are the Times-es of New York and London like without the bulk of their readers?

I’ve argued many times before that the Wall Street Journal’s paywall contributed to its fall from favor and ultimate sale. As the web’s prominence rose, the Journal’s prominence sank. Left out of search results, it was absent as a source and authority on most issues. This, I believe, impacted on crucial brand advertising—with advertisers, a notably fair-weather lot, saying “skip the Journal, I don’t hear much about it anymore.” It also impacted on younger members of the Bancroft family, the Journal’s owners, who themselves began to doubt the WSJ’s pride of place and, hence, their own pride in it. This was among the factors that allowed the company to be sold to Rupert Murdoch, who has, in fact, made more of the WSJ available online for free than ever before.

The Times-es, too, will similarly become shadows of their former selves. In a sense, they are officially departing the mass market. And the likelihood is that this will have a powerful and depressing effect on those organizations (not to mention, all those writers who live for their email). But there could be another sort of metamorphosis. Each of these newspapers was once much more elite than it is now—and with a much more limited readership (Murdoch’s Times had a circulation of 150,000 when he bought it—it’s at more than 800,000 now). Arguably, part of the NYT’s constant identity crisis is that, with its vast expansion, it ceased to know its readers.

The Times may necessarily have to devote itself to an older, intensely-loyal readership again.

Surely, it will be a wonderful irony if Rupert Murdoch, the king of low-brow and bishop of middle-market, triangulates himself, with the WSJ and with a restricted Times and Sunday Times, into having to be a true up-market, quality publisher.

Meanwhile, where do the 50 million go? What are the next great mass market news franchises? Who speaks to this curious but not-so-curious-as-to-pay-for-it (like most news consumers for most of news history) mob?

The news business, dominated by enervated legacy brands, has been in the dumps for a long time.

It may be about to get much better.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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