The announcement made by The Telegraph Group last week to start charging UK readers to access its digital content could mark a tipping point for other UK newspaper publishers.
Following the Telegraph's move other newspaper companies will be no doubt evaluating if it's also time for them to start charging for digital access now that three media groups have taken the decision to make the move.
It's nearly three years since News International announced it was going to follow the FT and charge people for reading the the websites of The Times and Sunday Times by preventing any access to its content unless a person had paid a subscription fee. The News International announcement in 2010 caused a collapse in online traffic for both The Times and Sunday Times dropping from 27 million to 2.7 million a month.
The two Times' publication now have around 130,000 paid-for subscribers to their websites and tablet editions way below the figures when access was free. But as the pioneer of charging for access they have been through the worst and will be pleased to see other publishers following suit.
The Telegraph group has chosen the so-called pay wall with a gate route. This allows free access to 20 articles a month and thereafter they will charge readers from £1.99 to £9.99 per month depending on their package.
The decision to charge for editorial digital content will be compelling given that printed newspaper circulations are going into freefall. Over the last five years the total paid for daily newspaper circulation figures have fallen by 2.6 million, equivalent to over 22% of total circulation. During the same period the decline in the total average Sunday paper circulation has been even more dramatic, falling by almost 28% equivalent to more than 3.3 million copies.
While printed circulations have fallen UK national newspaper websites enjoyed a bumper start to 2013, with all reporting double-digit month-on-month growth in January.
Mail Online led the way, adding almost 1 million average daily unique browsers month on month to end up just a shade below 8 million, a new record.Guardian.co.uk also set a new traffic record with 4,319,370 average daily unique users , an increase of 17% month-on-month.
This pattern of declining newspaper print sales is easy to spot if you walk through the average commuter train where the sight of a paid-for newspaper is now a rarity compared to the norm of 10 years ago. Such a journey also provides evidence of the booming sales of computer tablets.
According to YouGov market research commissioned by Newsworks (formerly the Newspaper Marketing Agency) conducted at the end of last year 29% of the UK population (12.2m people) now own a tablet with a further 7% of people planning to buy a tablet device in the next few months.
The YouGov study also revealed that people were more likely to read news on a tablet, with the most marked increase among younger readers. Among 18 to 24-year-olds, 54% said they would use the tablets to read more news, as did 60% of 25- to -34-year-olds.
According to the survey, 18- to 24-year-olds were the most likely age group to download an app from one of the UK national newspaper, with 40% saying they would, compared to the average across all demographics of 30%.
So the rise in tablet ownership could be a lifeline for beleaguered publishers if they can switch readers to paid for apps. Some progress is already being made with three of the 10 most lucrative iPad apps on the UK App Store in 2012 belonging to The Times, Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.
The big challenge for newspaper publishers, especially those at the quality end, is that the majority of their revenues come from advertisement sales. With digital advertising charges nowhere near the levels gained from the printed paper, £1500 per page on The Times app compared to over £27,000 in the printed paper, it promises to be tough times ahead for the printed media.
When Rupert Murdoch faced the Leveson enquiry he predicted there may be no printed newspapers in 10 years time. Time is fast running out for the press barons and their printing presses.