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April 14, 2017, 6:49 a.m.

The Times of London says focus on editions has driven digital growth

The British paper says subscriptions and traffic are up, even though it shuttered an app aimed at an international audience.

Minutes after the attack in central London last month, news organizations all around the world rolled out their breaking news coverage, booting up live blogs and tweeting out the latest developments.

The Times of London, like other outlets, posted a story within 10 to 15 minutes of the 2:40 p.m. attack, but it mostly stayed away from that continual style of reporting.

“We’re not liveblogging. These are not rolling stories that have new information flowing into them every 30 seconds and have lots of tweets,” said Nick Petrie, the Times’ deputy head of digital. “It’s the best knowledge we have at the time from our reporters. Then we looked at that throughout the day if appropriate, but we were pretty much back to a 5 p.m. edition two-and-a-half hours later. The rolling coverage didn’t continue into the evening like it did on BBC News, The Guardian, and other places.”

Last March, the Times introduced a new daily publishing schedule that’s centered around what it calls editions — an idea familiar to print readers but seemingly quaint in the always-updated digital world. The Murdoch-owned paper typically updates its website and apps four times per day — overnight, at 9 a.m., at noon, and again at 5 p.m. The London attack was one of only 10 or so times that the paper has broken its editions schedule. (Other instances: Brexit, David Bowie’s death, and when Great Britain won gold medals at the Olympics last summer.)

The Times also restructured its newsroom when it introduced the new publishing schedule, and the Times and the Sunday Times — which have distinct editorial staffs — began posting on the same website.

“We did a restructure at the time of launch, and essentially the principle became that we have one fully integrated newsroom serving all platforms,” said Times head of digital Alan Hunter. “By all platforms, I mean digital and print. We don’t have digital journalists per se — we have journalists. They’re expected to serve the website and phone as much as they serve the overnight print edition.”

The Times’ focus on editions has produced ups and downs for the paper over the past year. It shared a number of numbers meant to highlight its successes: The Times said the number of subscribers that pay for app and website access increased 20 percent, usage of its smartphone app grew 30 percent, mobile website usage increased about 30 percent, and articles read per visit was up 110 percent.

On the other hand, The Times also last year launched an app aimed at international audiences that was updated in weekly editions, but it discontinued that app after just nine months.

“We think we had a very good editorial product, but the actual mechanics of payment, trial, and data collection were not what we needed to succeed,” Hunter said about the international app. “As we look at it again, we’ll be very clear that every single bit of the process — from editorial right through the whole product and subscription cycle — needs to be optimized or the product will fail.”

The Times’ print circulation was 441,059 in February, according to the most recent data from the U.K.’s Audit Bureau of Circulation. That’s a 9.5 percent increase from the year before. The Sunday Times’ print circulation was 789,145, up about 3 percent. Users who subscribe to the papers in print also get digital access.

Like many news organizations, The Times considers digital subscriptions a key cog of its business strategy, and as it enters the second year of its editions strategy, the paper is looking to entice more readers to subscribe while also maximizing output for its current subscribers.

The Times has noticed that its traffic peaks when each update is published, but it noticed that a spike in readership coming from smartphone users around 10 p.m. As a result, it’s now considering adding a 10 p.m. edition. “We built the updates around the time we knew people came to us, and we’ve just discovered a couple more, which is satisfying, and we want to be led by our readers in everything that we do,” Hunter said.

The Times tends to promote news stories in the morning, opinion and analysis at noon, and then features in the evening.

But the Times is also in the process of developing a new type of metric that will try to measure a story’s impact. Petrie said that they feel that existing metrics like unique visitors or time-on-site tend to be “a bit too blunt.”

Petrie said the data will measure things such as: “Have people spent a good amount of time with it considering how long it is? Have they shared it? Have they engaged in the comments? Has it also performed well in terms of driving either subscriptions or registered access?…It’s in alpha testing at the moment — we wouldn’t even say it’s in beta. A closed group of editors has access to it in the newsroom at the moment.”

In an attempt to grow its subscriber base, the Times last summer began allowing users to register with the site and access two stories per week for free. Hunter said he couldn’t disclose the number of signups even though Catherine Newman, the Times’ chief marketing officer told Digiday last month that the paper has registered about 600,000 users, adding about 30,000 per week.

“In terms of best-performing articles for people registering, big news events obviously feature, but there is also a strong skew toward lifestyle content including finance, parenting, and fitness and health,” Newman told the site. “Overall, we are driving a younger and more female audience with content sampling than we see traditionally with straight to subscription.”

And despite the failure of its first international attempt, Petrie said the Times said it sees potential for growth outside the U.K., particularly given the interest in topics such as Brexit. “We have a slightly different take on the world to some of the other English-language publications coming out of the United States,” Petrie said.

The Times now offers subscriptions aimed at a global audience for £5 per month.

But even as it plots its plans for growth, Hunter says the focus on regular updates will be central to its strategy. “News has been atomized by digital platforms, but it seems that it’s something that people really value — the idea that you can read a selection of content, selected by editors, and feel that you’re up to date, and it’s finite and finishable. It’s an old idea, but I think it’s one that has real value.”

Photo by Tristan Nitot used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 14, 2017, 6:49 a.m.
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