Good news for newspapers: Online content does sell

BANGKOK - Global newspaper chiefs have some rare good news to share after years of slumping print sales and advertising revenues - readers appear increasingly willing to pay for online news.

More than 1,000 newspaper editors and other media figures are meeting in Bangkok as papers continue to shed readers - at least in the older markets - and the shift to the Internet draws more "eyeballs" but lower ad rates.

Press freedom, journalist safety, the use of new technology and future trends in print and advertising will also be discussed at the annual World Newspaper Congress, which runs until tomorrow.

The issue of charging readers for Web and mobile content looms largest, with editors casting an envious eye at media groups which have successfully implemented "paywalls" after years of giving away news for free.

"The general impression was that it would be impossible to reverse the culture of free (online) content... that people will never pay for it," said Mr Gilles Demptos of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

"The great news is that is changing dramatically," he added, citing the boom in paid-for online subscriptions for the "high-quality" journalism of The New York Times and Financial Times.

Last month, The New York Times became the second most-read US daily newspaper, with a circulation of over one million, boosted by 325,000 new digital readers who have joined since a paywall was introduced in 2011.

The paywall trend - either full or "metered" - has tentatively taken off globally, although many publishers closely guard the numbers of paying subscribers.

Newspapers have few choices, said Mr Demptos, as advertisers continue to baulk at spending on a diffuse online audience the sums editors want - and need - to sustain quality journalism.

"It's often repeated that a dollar in print becomes a dime online," Mr Demptos said, adding that the United States' biggest publisher, Gannett Co, has introduced paywalls on all of its 80 websites, while metered access was offsetting ad declines at the South China Morning Post.

While that should be a harbinger of better times ahead, analysts say it is a model that may only buoy top-end titles like The New York Times.

"There are many newspapers that are not very good that are trying to charge and I do not believe that will work," said media commentator Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York.

Still, it is not all doom and gloom for news chiefs, with many Asian print markets booming.

"I have absolute confidence in Asia," said Mr Pichai Chuensuksawadi, editor-in-chief of Thailand's Post Publishing, which counts the daily Bangkok Post in its stable. "It's still a growth market driven mainly by China, India and Indonesia," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SEE ASIA