The Irish News and operating profitably on the net…

Roy Greenslade has an interesting piece on the Irish News’ firewall. Not least the money figures:

If you click on the Irish News website up comes a page demanding that you pay for access to a digital edition. There is a choice: £5 for one week’s editions, £15 for a month’s and £150 for a year’s.

The result? According to journalism.co.uk, since its launch in December 2009, the News’s site has secured just 1,215 paid subscriptions: 525 weekly, 370 monthly and 320 yearly.

Okay, so not a great success. But as the Andersonstown News experience shows (they put on 1,000 readers after taking the content offline), closing off the print content of a newspaper or magazine does no harm to your print sales. Indeed, its the point Roy kicks off with. And in that space the Irish News looks pretty good:

In the final six months of last year, its print editions sold an average of 45,667 copies a day across Northern Ireland and into the Republic.

Though that represents a 4% decrease on the comparable half-year of 2008, it has to be seen in the light of a cover price rise, from 60 to 70p, in February 2009.

Anyway, its sales fall looks very reasonable when compared with the greater declines at the majority of regional dailies. The News saw off the launch of a rival, Daily Ireland (January 2005-September 2006), and has also consistently out-performed its other competitors.

It has eclipsed the News Letter (sales: 24,555) and has given the once-mighty Belfast Telegraph (down to 66,000 a day, of which only 55,000 are sold at full price) a run for its money.

Now that’s good. And it will not surprise anyone who watches the Northern Irish news market that Doran and the Fitzpatrick’s commitment to the quality of the product is paying off.  The commercial forces behind the decision are relatively simple to understand. Liam McMullan, the paper’s systems and resource manager:

“When the paper was available for free, apart from the cost of running the website, we were losing readers of the paid for paper to the free online model, which was economic madness. Now readers have a clear and equitable choice, pay for a printed newspaper or pay for the same paper online.”

But the BMG have gone down a slightly different route. Most of the content they put online is different (or at least differently packaged for the web). Mairtin’s column is a thing in and of itself. Gerry Adams has a blog, which is paid for like a column in the paper, but it has a whole other private life of its own online. The relationship with the group’s papers is similar to that between the Spectator magazine and its much more rowdy online sister, the Coffee House.

In the case of the Irish News, some of their best columnists (and some of the best in NI) have simply disappeared from online discussion and debate. True, we do do our best to keep with the best of what they offer, but the subscription only gets you access to a facsimile of that day’s paper. It’s uncopyable, and worse (at least the last time I looked) the archives have disappeared.

Unlike some bloggers, I am in decidedly in favour of newspapers making money out of online content. But the value proposition has to be right. Access to the Irish online would be valuable to me, if it came in a format that I could use. What works offline in print doesn’t necessarily work in the context of the net: paywall or not.

In the short term, the Irish News’s focus on making money out of the print edition and preserving that present value is the right thing to do. But it does not yet have a viable strategy for working into the online space. Although to be fair neither do any of the big regional papers in Northern Ireland.

As Adrian notes, the game is changing and like him or loathe him, Rupert Murdoch is in the vanguard of that change. All Newspapers need a newspaper strategy if they don’t want to become history’s chip paper… Protecting current revenues can only be part of that strategy. For the rest, iterative innovation has to be the way forward.

For now, no generalist paper has a comprehensive answer to the question of how you make money on the net. In the meantime the rule has to be: stick with what works, and dump what doesn’t…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty