Ding dong, the Times is dead. From June, the Thunderer and its Sunday sibling's online versions will be tucked behind paywalls, and if you want to read their stuff you'll pay £1 per day or £2 per week.

Unless every other UK newspaper does the same thing at the same time, News International - the Times' parent company - is about to shoot itself repeatedly in the foot. £100 a year? You get the entire BBC for that sort of cash!

Now we've predicted the general online reaction, let's be a bit more sensible about it. Many of the people who won't pay for news online won't pay for news in print, and wouldn't pay the BBC licence fee either if they didn't have to.

Their opinions, therefore, don't matter. What does matter is the opinion of the Times' current readers. The Times doesn't need to persuade everyone to subscribe. It just needs enough people to subscribe.

What the Times can't do is nothing, because the current way of doing things is no longer working. Newspapers are bleeding money, the Times included. Think the Guardian's doing well with its snazzy iPhone apps and world-beating website? It's bleeding red ink, and its sister title The Observer narrowly escaped closure earlier this year.

As Times writer Caitlin Moran tweeted earlier, "have you seen how thin and pitiful the Observer had become? Half of it's disappeared because it's MAKING NO MONEY. The Times loses £1m. A WEEK!"

That can't go on. Some newspapers are trying to fill the gap by running conferences, or selling value-added services. Others are going behind paywalls.

Has the Times chosen the smartest option? Nobody really knows, but the argument that it won't work because other newspapers are free might not be relevant here.

iTunes has already proved that people will still pay money for things they can get for free - most of the billions of songs Apple's sold were widely available on the P2P nets and torrent sites, but people paid anyway. As MSN content manager Alastair Bruce demonstrates, paywalls are becoming more common - and many of them appear to be working.

The news challenge

There are two challenges facing the news business. The first is to produce content that's unique enough to pay for, and the second is to make paying for it as painless as possible. We're not sure we'd pay a sub for a single newspaper or for one publisher's stable of papers - if you're a Times reader, would you want The Sun too? - but we'd consider a bundle that gave us access to several, complementary things.

Those things needn't all be websites, either: News International also owns Sky, so it could include its papers as part of your TV bundle, or it could hook up with sympathetic publishers to offer a subscription that combines newspapers, magazines and other media.

Perhaps publishers could learn from the adult industry, whose payment networks have long provided access to multiple websites for a one-off payment, dividing the spoils between participating sites.

What we do know is that publishers need to do something now - or at least, they do if they want to avoid the same fate as the record industry.

The businesses aren't identical - with newspapers, the people giving stuff away for free are the newspapers, not pirates - but the imminent iPad could be as much of a doomsday device as the iPod proved to be for the record business.

The iPad is a credible alternative to print, a device that's usable for reading in a way laptops and desktops simply aren't. If it, the next Kindle or some other new device takes off as a newsreader while free access remains the norm, then what little money's left in news will be diverted from the content creators and into the pockets of the hardware firms.

It happened with the iPod, and it could happen all over again with the iPad.

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Liked this? Then check out Guardian iPhone app re-raises paywall argument

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