Around 10.30am, the wall came down. And the former prime minister — as if he doesn’t have enough to worry about — was no longer free to the masses:

Kevin Rudd wasn’t alone. You have to pay for Paul Kelly now, too. And Mike Steketee, Christopher Pearson, Greg Sheridan and most of the top stories from today’s paper. Even the editorial announcing the paper’s “new era” was locked.

You’ll need a golden ticket to get in — a “digital pass” — which for the next three months will only cost you personal information for News Limited’s database. After that, as Crikey has previously reported, it’s at least $2.95 per week for digital access — including the paper’s tablet applications and a new mobile site launched over the weekend.

“We’ve spent a lot of energy on the functionality to make sure that it’s completely seamless and easy for the consumer,” The Australian‘s chief operating officer John Allan told Crikey on Friday. The newly-designed homepage mostly lives up to that promise: locked stories are clearly denoted by the gold key and the sign-up process is straight forward. (If only it then took you back to the story you wanted to read in the first place.)

Allan was in Melbourne last week to address a boardroom full of “digital leaders” (Crikey spotted marketers, ad agency types and social media gurus) at the invitation of executive recruiters Slade Partners. The guests left with their stomachs full and their complimentary Moleskine notebooks tucked in their satchel bags seemingly impressed with the pitch. Allan is a good salesman, and the newspaper has a finely-honed spruik — including a Trojan “Future of Journalism” blog — after more than 12 months of research and development.

But as one of the digerati commented to Crikey, nobody — News Limited included — really knows if it will work.

Allan, who’s only been in the job since July (previously he was in charge of News Limited’s directories business TrueLocal.com.au), is confident they have the right model. It’s not like The New York Times, which has a metered system of freebies, or London stablemate The Times, which has put all its content behind a subscription paywall. The Oz took “learnings” from those papers, he says, but ultimately decided on the path of another News Corporation stablemate in The Wall Street Journal — locking up the freshest content.

“Because it’s a freemium model it will move according to the issue of whether that story is exclusive,” Allan told Crikey. “So what we recognise is that … we apply a filter about that story — is that story exclusive, is it unique, is it timely, are we offering the consumer something they perhaps can’t get somewhere else — and that will denote whether that will be a subscription story or a free story.”

Section editors will decide what content will be subscriber-only, Allan says. And the wall will move throughout the day — if a locked morning scoop is picked up by other media by the afternoon it may be unlocked. Editors will have the power to “dial up or down” the subscriber content.

Like other subscription websites, The Oz‘s wall will have holes. Google will still crawl locked stories, and readers will have access to five of them from the search engine. Content shared via Facebook will be also be free — at least the first article — but all locked links from Twitter and LinkedIn will hit a paywall.

They were deliberate decisions. Facebook is a more powerful traffic generator than Twitter for the website, Allan explains interestingly, and editors recognise the power of social media in the online space.

As for how much traffic the site will lose, Allan not surprisingly isn’t saying. It’s a “balancing act” between advertising revenue and subscriptions, he says, pointing to The New York Times which has actually grown its traffic since implementing a paywall. Advertisers have been well briefed and, according to the COO at least, aren’t nervous about the numbers.

He’s also coy on any damage inflicted to the brand in a war by some in the federal government — led by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy — against the paper. Not to mention some of its linen being aired in a profile of editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell in The Monthly. He directs those questions to Mitchell, but with his commercial hat on declares existing readers trust the paper.

The Australian isn’t for everyone,” he said.

But is it for enough online readers to make this bold experiment a success?

Peter Fray

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