Are Telegraph plan for online paywall and healthy News International subscriber growth a sign of the future?

Is the tide turning for the concept of news website paywalls, as the Guardian reports today that the Telegraph group is planning to introduce charging for some digital content in the autumn?

This news coincides with encouraging signs for News International, with its Times and News of the World paywall sites both recording double-digit growth in audience numbers.

News of the World saw 627,000 unique visitors in January, a rise of a third on the December figure of 465,000, while the Times and Sunday Times rose by 31.8 per cent to 1.6 million unique visitors.

All the nationals did well, with the Mail as usual leading the field with 5.65 million unique visitors, followed by the Guardian on 4.9 million and the Telegraph on 4.2 million. Even the Independent, the runt of the national paper litter, grew by 8.9 per cent to 2 million.

The new Telegraph system is believed to be a gentle introduction to paid content, with users given a generous allowance before reaching a metered limit and being forced to pay. This has worked for the Financial Times and might well prove more popular with Telegraph readers than the abrupt barrier suddenly erected by News International.

As many pundits pointed out when Rupert Murdoch first announced his paywall, there is a wide spectrum of paid content systems, so it's possible for publishers to experiment and test the market almost continuously so as to find the best arrangement for their audiences.

The crunch period will arrive for the Guardian and the Mail if the paid content sites continue to grow and reach numbers comparable to the free sites. The Guardian in particular has made it a point of principle not to charge, but given its parlous finances, may well at one stage have to introduce some form of charging.

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About David O'Reilly

David is a former deputy editor of Campaign and writer for a number of leading titles including Management Today and the Sunday Times. He is a partner in The Editorial Partnership.