Fraser Nelson

A sign of the Times

A sign of the Times
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Yesterday, The Times produced its first Christmas Day edition for more than a century - since, that is, newsagents started taking that day off. The jewel in that edition was a wonderfully spirited piece from my Spectator colleague Matthew Parris about the importance of paywalls. I fervently believe in them, and regard them as the only hope for this sharply contracting industry. But over to Matthew:

“‘Sorry, I can't read you anymore, but I refuse on principle to subscribe now that there's a paywall,’ these muppets whine. ‘On principle?’ I reply. ‘What principle?’ As they fumble for an argument, I interrupt: ‘Look, maybe the money is a bit tight at present: I quite understand that. In fact, if it would cheer you up, I'd be glad to get you a drink at the bar - except that there's a paywall in pubs and bars in this country. So there's obviously a principle to be upheld here... Greedy graspers that they are, they take the view that as they've had to shell out for the wines and spirits they serve and pay the bar staff's wages, they actually want customers to make a contribution to their costs. Unbelievable, isn't it?’”.

“If a newspaper loses income from readers who now take the electronic edition free, then it can't indefinitely stay in business. To have a future, 21st century papers must find new sources of income... Unless paid subscription works, our kind of journalism is doomed.”

There are teething problems with the paywall system. I haven't linked to Matthew's piece because I read it on my iPad - and if I try to find it online, The Times want to charge me (and you) again. But, in any case, the iPad technology is fast-evolving. I'm proud of The Spectator's iPad edition (click here for details) but its a first version. We at 22 Old Queen St have huge hopes for what the iPad, and its successors, can do for our readers and advertisers.

Read The Wall St Journal on iPad, and it’s like a scene from Minority Report. A piece on Obama's Christmas speech is illustrated not with a picture, but a video that you can press to watch. A section offers you the best pictures of 2010, which look even more vivid on screen than on the page. It is, perhaps, the highest evolution of the species so far - and worth every penny of the subscription.

I'd like to think micropayments - charging a vast number of people not very much - are possible. But clunky payment technology (no one can be bothered typing their card details all the time) is not yet up to the task. The beauty of the iPad is the ease of payment. Mark Wood wrote a piece for The Spectator a while back saying how the iPad might even save Fleet St. James Murdoch made the case powerfully in a lecture back in October.

Now, I know this is not a popular point to make amongst CoffeeHousers. Our blogs are free. But look ten years into the future, and you see digital editions fast replacing print. On my flight back from Lanzarote this week, I noticed that passengers’ electronic devices (Kindles, iPads, etc) outnumbered books. So, as Matthew says, the choice for my industry is clear: either we manage to make digital subscription work, or game over. That's why many of Murdoch's greatest critics at The Guardian will secretly wish him well.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.