When Paywalls Do Not Pay

An interesting issue is rumbling behind the scenes (more precisely, behind the paywalls) of newspaper property sections in the UK.

It is this: are estate agents and developers getting the ‘leads’ they want from contributing to editorial content, when online versions of articles are read by fewer people than before thanks to the digital paywalls erected by some papers?

It is rarely publicised but, as we all know, estate agents and developers pay a fortune for PR to try to influence journalists.

This is because the agents and developers want to get mentions in such articles in the property sections of papers like The Times and Sunday Times, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, and Financial Times. Those mentions create interest from readers who are would-be buyers.

Now this process has continued fairly seamlessly as newspapers have stopped being exclusively in print and have created website versions too.

But now some papers, notably the FT, The Times and Sunday Times, have their online property stories behind paywalls - and ‘virtual’ readership has significantly fallen from the days when those stories were just on the free-to-use internet.

A recent Guardian report suggested that paywalls were hitting readership figures online.

While the FT’s subscription readership is pretty robust at 301,471 (actually more than the FT's print] circulation of 297,225) the situation at News International appears less strong.

The Guardian report claims digital subscriptions for The Times were 131,162 in June this year, ahead 26% compared with July 2011. “But latterly subscriber growth has slowed right down. There were 129,000 subscribers in February, meaning that only 2,100 have signed up since” says the report, adding that News International has doubled its tariff to £4 a week for its iPad subscribers.

And what does this mean to property sections?

Well, all property editors want the best content - exclusives, top properties, market analyses and celebrity stories, for example. But will estate agents and developers, and their PR departments, want to give such stories to paywall papers if online readership stalls and the consequent number of ‘leads’ drops?

If all newspapers eventually have paywalls, the situation will to some extent ‘even out’ over time. But if some papers decide not to have a paywall, their online readership may remain much higher for much longer.

It sounds a minor issue but it actually strikes at the heart of property journalism, how it earns revenue and whether it keeps the interest of estate agents and developers. This will be a developing story over the next few years. Watch this (free online) space...

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