There is such a thing as a free launch

by Stephen Tall on November 30, 2006

The New Statesman e-mailed me t’other day to ask me to blog-up their re-launched website,

Which I am perfectly happy to do not least because they have adopted a permissive browsing policy, with all articles available free – and, more interestingly, an eight-year archive that can now be plundered by any casual visitor with no subscription required.

A trend is emerging: last week, the Independent website withdrew its annoying firewall (I can’t really believe people ever paid £1 to access each ‘blocked’ Indy article).

This is contrary to the New York Times’s policy. It’s over a year since the USA’s paper of record launched TimesSelect, which placed many op-ed articles beyond the reach of those not willing to fork out US$50 a year. The result? Their online presence is now turning a profit, but at the cost of the public conversation that universal reach allows.

It’s also a U-turn for the Indy. It was only last March that its chief executive, Ivan Fallon, commented to thegrauniad that the Indy ‘had no desire to give content away for free, and said the industry would need to embrace online charging.’ So why the change of heart?

Emily Bell, Grauniad Unlimited’s editor-in-chief , explained why back in October:

On our education site, a story earlier this year gloried in the headline “Necrophilia among ducks ruffles research feathers”. Like the dolphin, it became our most popular story for days on end. This may demonstrate the effect Google has on any story carrying a word with sexual connotations in the headline, or indeed popular interest in animals doing strange things. But it also illustrates a key principle of web distribution – the value of a “long tail”.

If you publish all your material continuously, although the top story of the day will still attract a high degree of interest, other stories being talked about elsewhere on the web can draw an equivalent or even bigger audience over time. A third of our traffic on Guardian Unlimited comes from stories more than a month old. Hardly surprising as we have 3m items in the archive, all of which attract fractional traffic on an individual basis, but collectively make a considerable impact. So when people ask me why we don’t charge for the archive or at least put it behind a registration wall, this is a powerful reason why not.

This seems to be the conclusion that has now been reached by both the Indy and the Staggers.

Yet it’s not a universal truth. Pearson, which has controlling stakes in both the Financial Times and Economist, continues to firewall much of its comment and analysis, as well as its archive, with little sign of any change. It is perhaps part of these newspapers’ reassuringly expensive branding that they are premium products which subscribers will be attracted to precisely because of their exclusivity.