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Irish and Sunday Times seek quality behind paywall.

By Gerard Cunningham.

Ireland’s slow-motion media retreat from the open internet is set to accelerate in 2015, as the Irish Times rolls out its much talked-about subscription offer, joining the Sunday Business Post behind a paywall, though a more intriguing move this year may come from the Sunday Times, which is planning a seven-day Irish digital-only product for readers who subscribe to its online Sunday Irish edition.

The Irish Times has tried the pay-wall route before, of course. But since last abandoning the comprehensive paywalls in 2008, its online products have improved immensely, with the addition of online blog sections, redesigns of the home-page for mobiles and tablets, a rethinking of how commenting is handled, and lately its regular podcast features, including the breakout success of Second Captains. The new Times’ product will feature a ‘leaky’ paywall, with browsers allowed access to a limited number of articles each month for free.

On its website, the Irish Times claims 3.5 million unique visitors each month (January 2013). A recent Nieman Labs survey of US newspapers suggested that every 1m visitors would translate into 5,000 subscriptions. Assuming a subscription rate of €10/month, that suggests Tara street could expect revenues of €175,000 every month, or €2.1m in a year, from the move to pay-walls.

But there is a caveat. In most US metro markets, there is one newspaper. In a really big market like New York, there are two or three. The Irish Times is putting up a paywall in a market where the Examiner and Independent remain free online, not to mention and
Against that kind of competition, it may not reach the 0.5% conversion rate typical in the American markets Nieman measured. That said, the Irish Times is running at roughly break-even, and has cash reserves of €10m, so it can afford to take some risks – at least in the short- to medium-term.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times, paywalled for several years along with other Murdoch products, has online expansion plans. Early last year, following lengthy complaints from Irish readers unable to find the Irish stories in the online product, an exclusively Irish content app was launched. The year ended with the news that Richard Oakley, former News Editor with the paper would take the reins as editor of a new and expanded digital product, due out in April, “to form a seven day subscription package with the Irish edition of the Sunday Times”.

Oakley and the Sunday Times will, in effect, have to invent their new product from scratch. The Irish staff working on the Sunday paper will be able to do some reporting, but to expand from one to seven days the outlet will have to rely on freelances and new hires. The prospect of new opening is in itself a novelty, with most newspapers more likely to announce lay-offs. And although it seems that in line with Rupert Murdoch’s other online offerings, the digital edition’s paywall will not by “leaky”, there will be an introductory offer price.

Meanwhile, the latest editorial changes at Independent House, with the appointments of Fionnan Sheahan and Cormac Bourke as editors of the daily and Sunday titles, were quickly followed by news of further lay-offs. Behind the euphemisms of “integration” and “future-proofing”, a further 30 job losses were announced.

For every newspaper faced with declining physical sales, there are two ways ahead. The Independent seems set on the cost-cutting route, with mantras of “integration”, “more with less”, and an online product dead-set on aping the Daily Mail model of click-baiting its readers.
The two Times are looking at new revenue streams from paying subscribers. They will attract fewer readers behind their paywalls, but the gamble is that those readers they do attract will be more valuable.

Meanwhile the Irish Examiner, moribund after one resurrection, is running out of readers, even as it produces some of the best investigative journalism in Ireland. The reboot following the 2013 receivership of Thomas Crosbie Holdings did improve its balance sheet debt position, but it finds itself retreating back to its Munster roots.

“De Paper” is much more a regional than a national force, but that is not entirely a bad thing, and it does command an impressive market share in its home province. •