Tom Whitwell
Taking the path into paid content was "a very terrifying business", but essential to staying away from commodified news, the Times' assistant editor and head of online told an audience of online publishers today.

Speaking at the AOP Diversifying Revenue Streams event, Tom Whitwell said the company was keen to break away from turning news into a commodity, through SEO based headlines and replicated stories.

"We came to a fork in the road," Whitwell said. "We had two paths leading away from us; remaining free or charging for content. Other newspapers were using other models, writing lots of celebrity coverage or filling their pages with hundreds of stories, which was working for them but I'm not sure it was for the times. Online newspapers seemed to have fostered the idea that news is a commodity, with some showing thousands of stories on one page and this was something we wanted to move away from."

Whitwell refused to reveal figures for the period since the launch of the paywall last week, but told that the initial response had been positive, with plenty of debate already taking place on the site.

He also said that people seem to be more comfortable with the idea now they can see it in practice, and hope those who pay get the quality experience they expect.

"For us it's a big change and shift in the way we do things," he said. "It's not a strange or unusual thing, it's building a few products that have a price on.

"All the way through we were talking to the readers, or customers as we now call them, and responded to their needs," he added.

Tim Gentry, head of optimisation and effectiveness at the Guardian, responded to say that they had also come across the same "fork in the road" but decided to stay free to support the scale of their business and influence.

"We wanted to focus on the mutualisation of journalism, getting users involved and sharing ideas in an open place. Audiences are as much participators in creating content as they are consumers."

He referred to Guardian's Open Platform operations, from its Wordpress plugin which allows bloggers to use Guardian material, to the Enjoy England project created with Visit England, saying that the value was in engaging audiences and partnership sponsoring.

"It's all about working out what's right for different businesses. There isn't one right and one wrong path, the fact we are committed to keeping our main site free doesn't mean we don't charge for some digital features."

His remark prompted a question over the price tag of Guardian's £2.39 iPhone app, which Whitwell called "shocking".

Gentry defended it as an "experiment that had paid off" but said that the business model may "develop over time".

Google's strategic partner manager Benedicte Autret fielded a question on the search engine company's role in the commoditisation of news, saying she disagreed with those who blame Google.

"The internet and user behaviour is responsible for that change. Not Google."

In her own speech, Autret said mobile technologies are the future for online publishers looking to extend revenue streams.

"The kind of functionality that was impossible for us to even dream about is now possible. Mobile internet will surpass desktop by 2014 in terms of online users. Online publishers need to understand their audiences and look at what they can do with an app that they can't with their website."

She said that Google is focused on supporting the online publishing world: "We are interested in making the publishing industry successful and viability, if we can provide the industry with a tool then that's the way we want to go forward."

Another way to generate extra revenue from editorial content was proposed by Tom Wright, publisher for Datagroup at Incisive Media. Wright suggested gating content behind registration walls, using content as a "magnet" to draw in audiences, before requesting personal details.

"That is valuable information, which then becomes a sales lead of much more value than advertising. The buyer can now be connected with seller without advertising."

He accepted that registration may put-off some users, but that it would ultimately turn editorial "into a profit centre".

"Gating content is going to hurt traffic, but when the users are prepared to part with content data, the engagement is deeper and therefore a lot more valuable."

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