News Corporation reported 105,000 online sales of The Times and The Sunday Times yesterday as it published the first official figures since taking the controversial step of putting its website's content behind a paywall.
Officials at the newspaper group said they were pleased with the number of paid-for customers since the paywall was implemented in June.
Yet analysts were less bowled over by the figures, saying they left "the same old questions". Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, which produces the papers, hailed their digital performance, saying: "These figures very clearly show that large numbers of people are willing to pay for quality journalism in digital formats.
"It is early days, but renewal rates are encouraging and each of our digital subscribers is more engaged and more valuable to us than very many unique users of the previous model."
Yet critics pointed out that 105,000 digital sales in four months was hardly a stellar performance. Before becoming paid-for, the number of unique monthly users of the websites was more than five million. Those who subscribe to the papers have access to the website included in the deal and about 100,000 have activated digital accounts so far. "As a result, the total paid audience for digital products is close to 200,000," said News International's parent company, News Corporation.
Douglas McCabe, of Enders Analysis, said: "The numbers aren't great, but then they could have been worse. The announcement still leaves you with a lot of the same old questions."
News Corp's statistics did not break out pure web subscriptions from those customers who use The Times's Apple iPad application or have the content delivered to Kindle e-readers.
Other questions included the effect of discounting on the numbers, as well as how many subscribers left after the offer of £1 for the first 30 days expired. News Corp did reveal that half of its digital customers subscribe monthly, including those that have signed up to iPad app or Kindle edition. The rest are either "single copy" readers or pay-as-you-go. The company charges £1 for a day's access or £2 for a week.
James Harding, editor of The Times, said it was "early days" before adding: "We are hugely encouraged by what we've seen." Those who sign up for a trial, tend to convert into fully paid subscriptions, Harding said, although he did not provide specific figures.
"The number of people buying The Times is on the rise," he claimed. "The iPad has changed the way we are doing our journalism."
There were an estimated 30,000 subscribers to the The Times's app and Kindle version, which was much better than expected. However, the first two months of the app were free.
McCabe said the iPad app "looks the strongest part of the news and is a real positive for the group". He pointed out that advertising would have taken a hit, but those who paid would be more valuable to advertisers and The Times would have valuable data about its subscribers.
The subscription figures were below estimates from the research group Nielsen last month. It said about 362,000 people had accessed the Times's website every month between July and September and the site's front page had received 1.7 million hits.
Harding was adamant that his titles had employed the right strategy, telling Radio 4's Today programme: "We had engaged in a quite suicidal form of economics, which was giving our journalism away for free."
- THE INDEPENDENT