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Smoke and Mirrors: Why the Daily Mirror will not build a paywall

Daily Mirror front page, 2 December 1976
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The headline on Marketing’s website reads: “Daily Mirror’s plans online paywall“. The Twittersphere alights with it-won’t-workisms. The article says:

Executives at parent group Trinity Mirror are finalising which content to charge for on Mirror.co.uk and Sundaymirror.co.uk. Final details of the strategy are expected to be confirmed later this year.

Daily Mirror columnists, including political writer Paul Routledge and sports columnist Oliver Holt, will provide the foundation for the title’s premium content strategy. However, the Daily Mirror’s general news will remain free.

But wait: the headline on Wednesday morning now reads: “Daily Mirror’s plans for online content charges revealed (The old version is handily immortalised on TheMediaBriefing plus still appears in the article’s URL).

Leaving aside the fact that the headline promises the revelation of “plans” but then reveals that said plans are yet to be revealed, this talk of paywalls doesn’t add up. Here’s the problem with stories like this: There is no one-size-fits-all solution; to charge for content is not to erect a paywall.

The Times, Sunday Times and News of the World have genuinely built paywalls: three (mostly) impenetrable barriers to all their content.

The FT and Wall Street Journal have something similar, but offer some content for free: more of a pay-picket fence, or a members’ club with very restricted opening hours for non-members. The wall comes down at certain points, but it’s still a wall. Countless B2B titles and other content producers have different models still.

Editors’ Weblog has it that these plans are being finalised, but I’ve spoken to more than one person at Trinity Mirror and right now, while nothing is ruled out, not much has been finally agreed. But it’s safe to say Trinity is not keen on the idea of all-encompassing walls. In fact, it’s not all about monetising content through a simple fee for news and comment – but about making the most of relationships with readers through games and niche products. NMA’s article spells it out:

The publisher, which has traditionally been opposed to paywalls, said that while it won’t charge for ‘ubiquitous news’ which sites like the BBC provide for free, it is looking into a range of options for growth, including testing the appetite for paid-for content around its sport and entertainment verticals, 3am and Mirror Football.

Group head of digital Paul Hood tells NMA:

As we learn more about our player base, and as they give us more information about themselves, we can use our rich archive of content to hook them deeper into the Mirror Football site and convert them from casual readers to committed fans.

Doesn’t sound very wall-like to me. In fact it’s pretty much what Trinity Mirror CEO Sly Bailey has been saying for some time, such as during this earnings call in March (via paidContent:UK):

There will be some opportunities to charge for specific content but we don’t think a paywall around everything is the right strategy

The digital paid content debate cannot be reduced to a simple binary choice between “paywall” and “no paywall”. TheMediaBriefing’s forthcoming paywall report, written by Peter Kirwan (and available to order with an early bird discount right now), tackles this head-on and concludes that there are in fact six discernible online paid content models, not one.

Given that the Mirror has charged for its print edition for more than a century, executives don’t see charging for other products (note: plural) as particularly different. That doesn’t mean the Mirror can’t also sell advertising against its paid digital products, although convincing advertisers to do so is now a central challenge for the entire industry.

A wall with no Mirror

But what I don’t think will happen is that the Mirror sets up a universal, lock-down walled garden and take itself away from Google and the public stream of recommendations and personal networks.

And it’s also mistake to compare the challenges facing  Trinity Mirror’s three four national titles (Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Record, the People) with News Corp’s predicament: all of News International’s decisions are being driven by owner Rupert Murdoch’s ideological scheme across all of his empire – it’s a war against Google, whom he accuses of leeching from his journalists’ hard work, and the devaluation of content by our copy-and-paste global digital culture.

There is more than one option when it comes to monetising content and relationships. I hope the conversation and coverage around this debate recognises that.

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