Digital experiments at The Times


In 2012 we’re reading more and more online, leaving little doubt as to where journalism is heading. The problem is there has yet to be a proven way of monetising web publishing, though Britain’s oldest daily paper seems determined to prove it can be done.
The Times famously launched a paywall system on its website back in 2010, forcing fees on visitors in exchange for access to articles. The effect was pronounced, with a 90% reduction in traffic to thetimes.co.uk within three weeks of the change taking place, confirming that internet readers really aren’t as loyal as their print counterparts when asked to pay for stories.
Of course there’s an argument to say some return is better than none at all. The Guardian lives by the ‘comment is free’ mantra, and has established its model on web journalism without charges. Yet parent company Scott Trust has been selling off additional assets to plug the sizable financial hole, and is expected to announce more staff reductions in the future at the daily and its sister, The Observer. No matter what business you’re in this is no sustainable plan, and so it’s arguable that the ‘giveaway’ idea isn’t a long term option.
As such The Times’ decision to risk losing the vast majority of its online readership appears less hasty, and more accepting of the fact everyone may have to begin putting a price on similar services. However, what’s interesting is that a bridge between paid for and free articles was launched by the broadsheet this month, betraying a desire to claw back some of that web influence without an about turn.
Opened on June 12th The Times Opinion Tumblr hosts commentary and analysis from leading columnists, news photos of the day, video footage and selected links, and comes without that pesky paywall. Two weeks after opening and internet ranking firm Alexa already has the domain in the top 65,000 domains in the UK, suggesting the idea may be beginning to work, though due to the relatively small number of articles featured its impact on behemoth sites like Guardian.co.uk will be nominal at best.
The flirtation with free content doesn’t stop there, either. The Times so-called Hub also offers access to staff writing, sans toll, with sport the focal point. Currently catering for football fans with regular updates on the Euro 2012 tournament, this site will soon be used for extensive London 2012 coverage once the Olympic Games get underway.
Again the idea is to offer something for nothing and secure a regular online readership base outside its committed subscribers (however small that may be comparatively). Neither its Hub or Opinion Tumblr have any hope of profiting from advertising alone when the entire newspaper in web format failed to do so, meaning this is really about being seen to be present as a force in free news, get some much needed search traffic, and benefit from external sites linking in (after all, it’s difficult if not impossible to provide a click through to something behind a paywall). Interesting news, it’s also indicative of how important it is for all media outlets to remain openminded when it comes to saving their increasingly fragile futures.