Murdoch defends Times pay wall – but is The Times good enough to justify it?

Rupert Murdoch today made a rousing defence of his decision to put the websites for The Times and the Sunday Times in London behind a pay wall. Progress so far, he said, was “strong.”

But best industry estimates are that no more than 20,000 people have signed up for the £2 a week service and he needs at least 100,000 to make it work.

The News Corporation boss seems to be putting his faith in ‘tablet’ computers like the iPad, reckoning that people will pay to download apps. But he still needs to make the websites work and the signs are that they’re not.

The reason? Well The Times in London just ain’t good enough. Editor James Harding, another Financial Times refugee, doesn’t have the common touch. Elsewhere the paper lacks the kind of writers you’d pay to read online; it’s lost the best two over the past few years, City editor Patience Wheatcroft to the Sunday Telegraph and then to Murdoch’s own Wall Street Journal Europe and sports hack Martin Samuel to the Mail.

As for the Sunday Times it does have some good writers, like Jeremy Clarkson, Rod Liddle and the charmless AA Gill but people don’t pay to read Sunday papers online. The whole point is lugging them back from the newsagents.

So it’s not necessarily the Murdoch strategy that’s wrong. It’s more that he wants people to pay for something they wouldn’t necessarily choose to read for free.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.