When will Australian newspapers begin the great experiment of erecting paywalls around content online? It seems it may be a little later than we thought.

Last June, News Limited said that it would begin to charge for online content at The Australian by October, and we are almost there.

Meanwhile Fairfax has said it will begin charging for content delivered on its spick and now award-winning iPad apps by the end of this year, meanwhile  adopting a “freemium” model online under which some content was free and some paid.

But is it going to happen? There are rumours of collywobbles and delays on both sides.

In the Fairfax  annual results it was reported that there had been 215,000 downloads of the Fairfax iPad app, and the “premium content pricing strategy” was described as “under way” but it is hard to find out how many of those who have downloaded the apps are active users, let alone how many will sign up for the paid deal when it is introduced. Overseas experience suggests a small fraction.

Meanwhile, word around the traps in the digital industry is that Fairfax has been testing out its proposed new Australian Financial Review behind-paywall app on the market, and has been told that it is all wrong.

Views include that it is too close to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald apps, which are designed as beautiful but primarily “lay back” browsing experiences, whereas those who access AFR content online are primarily doing research.

Or that is what digital media industry sources tell me they have said.

As for News Limited, the same sources expect to see a wall of a kind introduced at The Australian by October, but for the initial  emphasis being on getting people to sign up and register, rather than pay money. Once a database of users is established, the next step will be paid subscriptions, but probably not until next year.

The tabloids will follow — but with no sense of urgent hurry. And everyone expects the result to be smaller audiences, and of course declining influence. It is about quality and sustainability, not size.

Meanwhile, Australian industry figures are watching what is happening in the States, where paywalls with holes in them has been the approach of choice ever since The New York Times launched its rather sophisticated paid content approach in March.

Today we have the announcement by The Boston Globe of its new paid website, under which breaking and local news is free, but after reading five other stories you are asked to subscribe. Readers coming in sideways from social media sites will be allowed to view just the one story that draws them in.

I gather one of the reasons for the delays at Australian media sites is back-end issues, and the problems of expecting people to pay for the app when the same content remains free on the website.

Hence, perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Boston Globe’s approach is that there is no app in sight. Instead, the new website is device friendly, adapting to whatever screen it is viewed on.

Despite the undoubted beauty of the best of the apps, the smart money overseas is now on not apps, but rather websites that adapt — one platform that works differently on different devices.

Which raises a painful question: was all that money spent on developing in-house applications in Australia the best way of spending available dollars?

Time will tell. But expect the start of the great experiment of paid content in Australian mass market newspapers to be months away, rather than weeks.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey