Page last updated at 11:39 GMT, Monday, 30 November 2009

Johnston Press starts charging for online local news


Rory Cellan-Jones reports on how the whole newspaper industry is watching the trial to charge readers with interest

One of the UK's biggest newspaper firms is to charge for access to online content from six of its titles.

The Johnston Press websites will either ask users to pay £5 for a three-month subscription to read the full articles, or direct them to buy the newspapers.

Johnston is the first regional publisher in the UK to trial asking readers to pay for its online news.

Sites in the pilot scheme include the Worksop Guardian, the Ripley & Heanor News and the Whitby Gazette.

The Northumberland Gazette is also included in the trial. In Scotland, the Carrick Gazette and Southern Reporter are taking part.

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Payment models

The Scotsman, also published by Johnston, operates a similar system for readers wishing to view "premium content" on its site.

"We're concerned that whatever action Johnston Press takes it does it properly, in a way that will secure the future of journalism across its titles," said Barry Fitzpatrick, head of publishing at the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

"If Johnston Press wants people to pay for news online, it will need the sort of high-quality content that will make people reach for their wallets. That means greater investment in journalists working close to the communities they serve."

Why would anyone pay for something that they can get for free? Trying to charge people will just alienate them
Alice W, Bristol

Johnston, which owns more than 300 papers across Britain and has suffered from a drop in advertising revenues, says the introduction of "paywalls" is an experiment to assess the impact of charging for content.

"Once you start restricting access on the websites, if you have content that can broadly be found somewhere else, then you really restrict the number of people coming to websites," the Guardian's director of digital content Emily Bell told the BBC.

"I think it's great that people are experimenting with lots of different models because undoubtedly we need to find more money in the market," she added.

Torin Douglas, Media correspondent

This is a very small toe in the water, involving just six titles at Johnston Press - which already charges for content on The Scotsman website.

Regional press bosses, at a lunch with Lord Mandelson, were surprised at the attention it got.

But paying for online news content is the hot topic in media circles - and everyone has a view.

Rupert Murdoch doesn't always get things right - and sometimes changes his mind - but he cannot be ignored.

While the world waits for The Times to introduce 24-hour charging in the spring, it can test the water with the Worksop Guardian and the Whitby Gazette.

Or observe the success of the Financial Times, which has charged its web readers for years and now has more than 120,000 online subscribers.

The key question is how many newspapers have enough content of real value to do the same.

Advertising slump

The Financial Times currently charges a subscription for full access to its web content.

Most other national newspapers in the UK remain free to online readers.

Earlier this month, News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch said he would try to block Google from using news content from his companies.

Mr Murdoch has previously said that the websites of his news organisations would begin charging for access. One of his newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, already does so.

Newspapers across the world were already hurting before the global recession.

They have been hit by a combination of falling advertising revenues and declines in circulation as readers migrated to the web.

Earlier this year, the Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) cut 1,000 jobs at its regional arm Northcliffe Media, which publishes more than 100 newspapers in England and Wales.

It sold the London daily Evening Standard - which is now a freesheet - to Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev and closed its London Lite free paper.

It's great that people are experimenting with lots of different models because undoubtedly we need to find more money in the market
Emily Bell, the Guardian

The owner of the Manchester Evening News cut 150 jobs and closed eight offices, while Trinity Mirror sacked 40 journalists at the Liverpool Daily Post and the Echo, and cut its editions of the Post.

And in March, the Observer Standard Newspapers entered administration.

In the US, Seattle, Denver and San Francisco have all lost a daily newspaper and the Tribune Company - which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and others - filed for bankruptcy in December 2008.

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