Looking at The Times’ new paywall

4 June 2010

Last week I had the pleasure of being invited to The Times’ preview of their new website – which as virtually everyone knows, they plan to put behind a paywall at the end of this month. Rupert Murdoch’s edict is clear: he’s going to make people do what they’ve not done for a long time before, and that is pay for online news, and deny the search engines their share of what he sees as his pie.

With the new paywall comes a new look and a new structure. The URLs are much better for starters – thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk rather than the tautological timesonline.co.uk. And the designs are quite gorgeous, for a newspaper website; as one of the the Times editorial staff mentioned – the design of most other UK broadsheets tend to blur into each other. This layout employs larger photos and a more flexible page layout, mimicing paper news as well:

The paywall has afforded the Times and Sunday Times a few additional luxuries that free news misses out on; there’s no clutch of Twitter and Digg icons that clutter other news sites are no longer there, but of course the really big change is the reduction in advertisements. Without them, the site is so much cleaner, although it is not totally bereft of them – but to be honest, it wouldn’t look like a newspaper if it didn’t have any ads at all, would it? And the increased premium on those ads should mean an end to garish Flash animations, rollover, popunders, lightboxes and the rest.

Sadly for the Times’ designers, in order to pull off such a beautiful website that looks so much like a real newspaper, the controls have had to take a back seat. The menubars at the top rely on rollovers, and navigation buttons are small and fiddly; as an example, the pagination controls on the Sunday Times’ carousels are absolutely tiny:

All are fine for those of us on large monitors and point & click devices. But it comes at the same time as the iPad’s launch in the UK, and everyone’s talking about tablets as the future. A new iPhone is expected in the summer and the design paradigm of touchscreen smartphones is here to stay. Controls built for point and click, tiny icons and buttons and all, simply don’t work with stubby fingers on smeared screens.

The Times’ developers aren’t of course that stupid, and the same week the new site launched, an iPad app came out as well; Times and Sunday Times iPhone apps have also been released, although oddly the UI consists of zooming & navigating a PDF of the newspaper which then clicks through to fairly rudimentary mobile-friendly renderings of articles. A sign, perhaps, that things are a little rushed. Thinking isn’t also joined up across the pricing; accessing the Times & Sunday Times website and iPhone apps, the same subscription applies, but the iPad app is a separate subscripion of £10 a month instead. As a consequence, I fear a lot of time and effort is being duplicated over satistfying so many different platforms and pricing models.

Ah yes, pricing models. £2 a week for subscription is about £9 a month, but for £10 a month I can get all the music in the world on Spotify, or £12 a month I can get four TV channels, a shedload of radio, and a news website from the BBC.1 The price of just one newspaper2 a week doesn’t quite match up. £1 for a single day’s newspaper is even odder, in a digital market where a music track or iPhone game costs less, and last a lot longer – there is nothing tangible to keep or line the cat litter tray with at the end.

But then maybe Rupert need not worry. If News International starts bundling Times subscriptions with Sky packages, or other marketing tie-ins with partners, then all of a sudden that £9 a month looks a little less expensive, standalone, and more of a complete whole. So the Times will make money. With a little clever marketing they’ll probably make enough to justify the initial expense and loss of revenue from adverts.

Interestingly, it also raises some interesting possibilities. I’ve discussed here before about the tragedy of comments on news and how it devalues news websites so. But by fencing off the Times all of a sudden now becomes an interesting social experiment; as a further step they will be insisting on real names. It could be the start of a morecivil, closely-knit, vibrant community without the trolls and drive-by snarking (I hope). Conversely, now that commenters have paid up their subscriptions, their expectations about the website’s content will rise accordingly, and now the community management team there have a sizeable task on their hands.

So exciting Times. But at what other cost? Search, for one. The typical user journey for a non-subscriber is via the front page. Click on a link and an overlay will come up asking you to log in or sign up. Straightforward for a human, but that applies to the search engines just as well. When I pressed with a question about it, it was confirmed that unless a Times story was on the front page of the site, then not even the headline will appear in Google’s index for that URL. Sure, Rupert hates Google, but even they have found how to balance comprehensive search indexing with respecting paywalls – just look at how Google Scholar works.

It’s not just search engine robots that will be bemused by the paywall. Any bookmarking service that spiders the site you’re bookmarking – Digg, Reddit or perhaps most crucially, Facebook – checks ahead for the title and an excerpt (and photo thumbnail). The Times however, by refusing any sort of robot-friendly preview URL, ends up looking quite lost – for example, this it what happened when I bookmarked an article in Facebook:

To some extent, search and sharing don’t matter so much now you don’t depend on eyeballs. But nevertheless, the user experience still needs to be great to retain paying customers. For example, I for one rarely use my browser history to find a page I want to revisit that I last read a few days ago; with a rough recollection of its source and topic, I can probably find that page quicker in Google. If I were a Times paid subscriber, I’d be unable to do this with any Times pages I visited, and this might prove to be an annoying quirk at the very least.

But the bookmarking bug would irk me more. If there’s a great article that is worth parting with a quid for (overpriced though I think that is), then any sharing on Facebook, Twitter or Delicious, helps me let my friends and others readers know. Publishing socially-important metadata such as the headline and a one-line precis, while keeping the rest of the content behind the paywall, does nothing to devalue the content but is a quick win in extending its possible reach. With word of mouth so important for news consumption in the modern era, optimising for sharing should be as important as optimising for search – and it’s not about ramming endless Web 2.0 buttons down the user’s throat either.3

The Times’ paywall won’t be a dismal failure, as it comes at a time whe we’re finally getting mature about paying for digital content – whether it’s games and tracks off iTunes or subscription to Spotify. But the vast majority of its reportage is going to pretty similar to its free rivals elsewhere, so they face a battle for every single pound that comes their way. And to win that battle, they need to get everything else absolutely bang-on – search, social bookmarking, accessibility – to make it really work. Unfortunately for them, right now they’re not quite there – not yet anyway.

1 Actually I pay less than that, as I share a flat, something else which isn’t factored into the paywall – shouldn’t it be per-household like newspapers are typically consumed, rather than per-person?
2 Well, yes, two newspapers, but they don’t publish on the same days so perhaps they shouldn’t be counted. That said the Sunday Times is of distinctly different format and they intend to publish during the week, so maybe they should just do away with the temporal slicing.
3 Yeah, I know this blog post has a big icon top right to Tweet, but I’m not a national newspaper… ;)


One Response

I think a lot of the success of this depends on The Times having a huge long-running story like the Expenses scandal to constantly plug.

Something like that – although I can’t recall another story which went on that long – would persuade many people to sign up so they could see the story, particularly if it became a topic of water-cooler conversation.

Having said that, I don’t know this but I’d hazard a guess that a lot people who read the actual news on the internet – as opposed to interviews, features, columnists etc – choose the newspaper which they get at home. As The Times is going to give a free subscription to the website to people who already get The Times direct, they seem at least partially reliant on having columnists.

I say this, because I think it’s predominantly younger people who only read the newspaper on the internet and they are probably mostly not Times readers. So in a sense it comes down to whether people want to read Caitlin Moran, Giles Coren, and Robert Crampton. And I have my doubts that many people will be willing to pay a tenner a month for that.