So, the Times and Sunday Times websites have now retreated behind their paywalls. I've had a busy few weeks what with one thing and another so I didn't get to look around behind them much during the free trial period which is a disappointment. As I've said in previous blog posts about paywalls and this experiment, I'm fascinated to see if it will work. In many ways I hope it does because I see it as offering a far more stable financial model - which I hope will translate into better pay rates for the writers who contribute. (Am I just kidding myself here?)
But I was really struck by a problem with this approach today. @timestravel the Times travel desk's twitter stream tweeted:
Got any questions for our panel of travel writers? They're online until 1pm: http://bit.ly/awAypw
But of course this discussion was behind the paywall. Click the link and you just got a 'subscribe for access' message.
Maybe there's a new phrase I can coin here - is this the first example of 'Anti-social media'?
Unsurprisingly the tweets that followed were just a tad sarcastic:
From @alastairmck (BGTW member and travel editor):
RT @timestravel: Got any questions for our panel of travel writers? >> behind a link that goes nowhere (unless u pay)
From @DanielPearce (editor of travel industry magazine TTG:
@timestravel Well if only we didn't have to pay to join in then!!! Hope it goes well
Discussing how to get into travel writing... http://bit.ly/awAypw (via @timestravel) - great! but I have to pay to participate?
As Twitter and Facebook in particular have shown, Social Media is just a fantastic way to engage with new customers, to get people who don't know about you to come on board and participate. No chance of that for the Times Travel team now. They're stuck with their own walled-in population of subscribers. This to me just seems to run totally contrarily to the way Social Media is 'supposed' to work. (If you subscribe to the points of view of people like Clay Shirky et al.)
My first instinct would be to say - keep the great content like travel features and professional opinion and advice behind the paywall and use social media to point people to landing pages that are free for all to access. Reel people in with some engaging debate and hope this will encourage people to become subscribers.
But I can see the dilemma. For the very reason that social media gets people really engaged and interested in what you're up to because it's unique and compelling, it's the kind of stuff that the bean counters and marketers at the Times will want to charge people to access. In fact some might argue that it ought to be the very lifeblood of the website. Absolutely NOT something to give away for free.
So, you can follow @timestravel on twitter, but as is the case for most newspaper and magazine twitter streams their tweets are most of the time about features they themselves have published and debates and discussion on their website. So if you aren't subscribed to The Times you just click a link that dumps you in front of the 'subscribe now' screen. I wonder if as a result they will see a drop off in twitter followers? And will their tweets become nothing more than promotional messages encouraging people to 'sign up for great debate' or whatever?
Interestingly a further tweet exchange between Kevin May editor of Tnooz suggested a degree of frustration at the situation might be creeping in.
His Tweet was asking the Times Travel desk to comment on a post on Tnooz:
What say you @timestravel to this Tnooz post from @imckee http://bit.ly/bmM5Nx
"Timestravel will have a view but you will have to pay to see what it is"
Looks like absolutely nothing is free at the Times nowadays - even a quick comment on another blog post! I wonder if this is as a result of a directive on high or just a joke? A rueful acceptance that they are kind of caught between a rock and a hard place?
Personally I think for The Times to make this paywall thing work they will need to mix it up a bit and chuck some free stuff into the mix. How they do this without meaning all the best stuff leaks out from behind the paywall I don't know.
It will be so interesting to see.
What would you do if you were in their shoes?