The Times and Sunday Times newspapers are to charge £1 a day for access to their websites, starting from June - a move which will be watched with bated breath by the rest of the written media.
Parent company News International made the much-anticipated announcement today, adding that the two papers' websites will be separated from each other and that a one-week online subscription will also be offered for £2.
News International's chief exec, Rebekah Brooks, said it was "a crucial step towards making the business of news an economically exciting proposition", while Times editor James Harding told the BBC the move was "less of a risk than just throwing away our journalism and giving it away for free".
The sister papers lost £87.9m for Rupert Murdoch in the year to June 2009 as advertising revenues plummeted during the economic downturn. Circulation for the Times fell by 12 per cent year-on-year in February; that of the Sunday Times by almost 4 per cent: slumps which are only the thin end of a huge decline in newspaper circulation over the last two decades.
The move to a paid-for site is a gamble, but Harding said the newspapers hoped it would pay off, making comparisons to the music industry's recent recovery online: "People said the game is up for the music industry because everyone is downloading for free. But now people are buying from download sites."
Brooks said she was "proud of our journalism and unashamed to say that we believe it has value", but users of the existing Times site seemed less sure. "Say goodbye to your ad revenue as readership plummets," one
told the paper. "£1 per day for 5/10 mins browsing... no thanks," read another comment. One man was "happy to pay a small amount for Times quality journalism" but disappointed that the site would still contain advertising.
The £1-a-day, or £2-a-week, charge will give readers access to both papers - and those who hold a subscription to the print editions will be able to access the websites at no extra cost. But there is no question that web users are in the habit of expecting something for nothing, and many will surely turn to the many other free sources of news and comment online.
As well as the possibility of driving away their readers, the new strategy also risks isolating the papers from the rest of the web's global conversation: links from other websites to the Times will no longer be possible. (A side-effect of this will be Times stories being much less visible in Google search results). One commenter to the site said today: "I have been able to circulate links to many excellent Times articles while campaigning over freedom of speech issues over the past year. It seems all that will have to stop now."
Many commentators feel that if the Murdoch empire thinks this is worth a try, it must be. Certainly, one UK magazine seems to have been rewarded by its "luddite" approach to the web: UK political satire weekly Private Eye recorded its highest circulation for 18 years for the second half of 2009, averaging 210,218 copies per edition.
The Eye has never embraced the internet: for its first few years online, its site offered just a cartoon or two with the stern injunction: "For the 'serious' stuff, you'll just have to buy the magazine..." More recently, it has been expanded a little – but every section still points teasingly to the bulk of content only available in print.
The magazine's managing director, Sheila Molnar, attributes her buoyant sales at least in part to this miserly – or prudent - web strategy. She told the Guardian recently: "When I took over this role [in 2002], the first thing I did was take content down off the web. People thought I was a bit of a luddite, but people buy the magazine because they can't get it for free."