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June 18, 2013, 11:37 a.m.

The Times of London, navigating audience with a strict paywall, retires its opinion Tumblr

The Times’ effort to give readers a free taste of its opinion pieces wasn’t generating enough of an impact on paid subscriptions to be worthwhile.

times opinionWhen you bet on a strict, un-leaky paywall as The Times of London has, you’re forced to get creative about how to put your work in front of new audiences — particularly if you’re trying to influence their opinions. Unlike its fellow Times across the Atlantic, the U.K. paper has chosen not to allow a set number of articles per month or a number of free routes around the paywall.

So a year ago, The Times set up a Tumblr for its opinion content, with the aim of giving “a flavour of what our columnists and leader writers do, how they think, and what influences their writing.”

After initially posting 80 times or more a month, posting fell off, and earlier this month, the Times Opinion Tumblr was shut down, with editors announcing they would be moving all opinion content back to its original home on the newspaper’s main site.

“We wanted to see if it attracted new readers to The Times and were very clear, with ourselves and our readers, that it was an experiment to see how it could work for us. It flourished in parts, but we’ve come to the conclusion that it wasn’t quite right for us,” communities editor Ben Whitelaw wrote in a post that also appeared on the Times Digital Development blog.

The Times reactivated its Comment Central opinion blog — behind the paywall — on the same day that the Tumblr blog was shuttered. Whitelaw wrote that posts to the blog would occasionally be free-to-access.

Nick Petrie, The Times’ social media and campaigns editor, told me that the Tumblr page was part of an effort to draw in new digital subscribers to TheTimes.co.uk. Regular Times columnists like Oliver Kamm and Daniel Finkelstein posted shorter “off-the-cuff” pieces on the page, which were freely viewable to all visitors. Times Opinion had amassed 66,000 followers since its launch, Petrie said, “but it wasn’t driving traffic back to the site.”

“Tumblr seemed like a good, light, easy-to-use platform that we could use to give people a taste of our comment and opinion, which is obviously the type of journalism that the Times is renowned for,” Petrie explained. “There was a hope that pushing out a small amount of original journalism, of original comment and opinion, would further enhance the idea of giving people a taste of what’s on offer if they became a subscriber.”

Reaching an audience to influence

What to do about opinion writing behind a paywall is a question newspapers have dealt with as long as there have been paywalls. Opinions, after all, are meant to influence, and influence would seem to grow along with the audience reading them. The Wall Street Journal, a paywall early adopter, committed early on to posting many of its opinion pieces online for free even while most news content was subscriber-only. Meanwhile, The New York Times took the opposite approach in the mid 2000s with TimesSelect, which kept the news free but put the newspaper’s columnist behind a paywall.

(The Wall Street Journal also began posting pieces from its editorial page on an Opinion Journal Tumblr, but back in 2007; like the U.K.’s Times, the Journal also stopped updating the page about a year after its debut.)

Petrie said that The Times had not specifically set up analytics for the Times Opinion Tumblr, so the editors aren’t sure what kind of traffic the page generated. According to comScore data, The Times has seen a substantial increase in traffic over the past year, from 748,000 unique worldwide visitors in April 2012 to nearly 1.5 million in April 2013 — but that’s still far behind other British newspapers without strict paywalls such as The Guardian, which has over 18 million monthly uniques in the United States alone and well over 30 million worldwide.

The Times, owned by the soon-to-split News Corp., remains on shaky financial ground; last week, acting editor John Witherow announced that the paper would be cutting 20 editorial jobs as a result of the parent company’s decision to separate its newspaper and entertainment holdings, The Guardian reported. The Times has seen a major decline in online readership since erecting the paywall in 2010.

“The idea is that everything that we publish is worth being paid for,” Petrie said.

Teaser pages, which allow readers to view the first 100 words of every article, were integrated into the Times site in October 2012 and may be a driver of The Times’ increased traffic. Only 881,000 unique visitors came to the site in October 2012 according to ComScore — a modest increase from the previous spring.

After the 100-word previews became a standard part of the site, Petrie said that the opinion Tumblr “became slightly defunct in that moment…We’re pursuing a strategy that essentially, we want to bring people in to see our journalism, rather than take our journalism out of our space — that’s why we’ve relaunched the Comment Central blog, which had been incredibly popular before we started charging.” That blog will soon feature podcasts on opinion topics, and Petrie noted that the Times is developing new strategies to attract paying subscribers to the site.

“That’s something we’re working on at the moment, but we’re not ready to talk about that yet,” he said.

POSTED     June 18, 2013, 11:37 a.m.
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