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Digital versions of The Times and The Sunday Times newspapers were put behind paywalls over three years ago—in July 2010. And while their News UK stable mate, The Sun, also put up a paywall this year, the majority of UK news media brands continue to operate a free-content model.
With so much news content available for free, it's perhaps unsurprising that attitudes toward paywalls in the UK remain largely negative. According to a Kantar survey conducted by Lightspeed Research, 80% of UK internet users polled in August 2013 considered newspaper paywalls either "a bad idea" or "pointless." While 21% felt they made sense in some circumstances, only 12% considered them necessary.
Whether or not paywalls are a good idea, the growing importance of digital in the news brand equation is certainly making the debate relevant. UK consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable accessing news content in the digital realm. According to a March survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), among consumers in Great Britain, reading or downloading digital news was a common activity, particularly among younger demographics. It was cited by around 70% of the two youngest demographic groups, and by a sizeable majority of those ages 35 to 54.
The wider—and perhaps overly simplistic—debate centers on whether lots of digital readers paying nothing for the pleasure trumps fewer readers who are more valuable in terms of the revenue they offer. Recent figures from Experian Marketing Services indicated that The Sun's website lost more than a third of its market share of internet visits in the first 10 days following its move behind a paywall. However, that it retained 64% of its original share could be seen as a huge success. The Times, meanwhile, saw its digital subscriber numbers rise by 20% between February 2012 and October 2013.
No clear conclusions can be drawn just yet as to which business case will win out. But despite clear negative sentiment toward newspaper paywalls, they are beginning to see some traction.
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