Richard Pattinson

The battle over payment for news content is ratcheting up. After a decade of delivering online content almost entirely for free, a hardy band of news executives are growing steadily bullish – or reckless, depending on your point of view – as they look to ways of reinvigorating their revenue streams.

Take the Times of London, which has now disappeared behind a pay wall. As online readers bang up against the site’s new registration page, analysis of the impact on the news organization’s web traffic makes for interesting reading. According to Hitwise, traffic to Times Online dropped from 4.37 percent (of the overall news reading pie) in a single week in May to 2.67 percent in the equivalent week in June.

Is this simply an initial reaction as otherwise committed readers bounce off the registration page before biting the bullet and signing up? Or is it the beginning of a death spiral for the website’s long-standing prominence, both on the UK and international stage?

As ever, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but it makes for a fascinating departure in online news and will likely provide a test case for other news organizations currently weighing their options. All eyes remain on the New York Times – never one to be left on the sidelines – as it develop its plans for metered access, slated to take effect in early 2011. Although the NYT has repeatedly said it is eager to maintain limited free access to the company’s internationally-renowned website, it appears committed to charging readers for more extended usage.

What’s almost certain is that both the New York Times and its London namesake will have carefully studied existing efforts at paid online access before committing to their own. The Financial Times – a long-time cheerleader for paid content – provides an alluring example for just about everyone in the industry.

“Some of the apostles of free – who were giving us a hard time three or four years ago when we started charging online – are no longer in business,” said FT CEO John Ridding, as recently reported by the LA Times. Rupert Murdoch would no doubt make similar noises about the relative success of his paywall at the Wall Street Journal.

It’s important to remember, however, that both the FT and the WSJ had already cornered a particular audience – the lucrative business market – before imposing their online charge. No doubt it will prove more challenging for the Times of London and the NYT – past masters in general reporting – to entice a steady stream of online readers through their respective paywalls.

Meanwhile, a small but growing number of industry voices suggest the old print leviathans are barking up the wrong tree in their emphasis on rigid paywalls. Instead they advocate the development of a micropayment system similar to iTunes where people can shop across a range of news items and select their content on an individual basis without having to subscribe to any particular provider.

These are complex and interesting times for the business of news provision.