Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Bring on the wall! (But is it worth paying for?)

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 25, 2010

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“We are completely unashamed of this, we want people to pay for the journalism”

Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist

Did you know the Times has an Ocean Correspondent? That’s right: a journalist dedicated to covering ocean news. He’s called Frank Pope and he was on the front page of yesterday’s print edition, diving into the Gulf of Mexico, an experience which must currently be akin to swimming through a gigantic jar of Marmite.

He’s a man whose beat is 70% of the earth’s surface, yet the position of Ocean Correspondent is a luxury not many papers or broadcasters would afford.

And that’s why the Times wants us to start paying for its online news, just like some pay for the paper. And this morning we see the launch of this – with and going live in the last few minutes.

Last night I joined a small group of bloggers and media/tech journalists at the headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s News International in Wapping, London to get a sneak preview of the site before the wall went up.

It’ll be something of a glass paywall at first with the content visible to all — then, after four weeks, the glass becomes brick and not even Google’s spiders will be able to crawl between the mortar cracks.

That’s right: articles on and will not be searchable on Google…if you see a story you like, you won’t be able to share it on Twitter or Facebook…it would seem, a massive own goal, but at least they’ll save money on SEO consultants.

Niche & experience

My two concerns for the Times paywall are these:

  1. the Times is not significantly niche enough (as, say, the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal are) to attract paying readers
  2. the experience of reading the Times online was not good enough to make it something to pay for

On point one, they have put thought into it. The websites will boast what the Times and Sunday Times do have – excellent columnists, good travel, review and culture. It won’t, we’re told, be a repository for breaking news “taken from PA”, insisting they won’t put a story up “if they can’t add value.”

That is a good step, although I am still not sure what the Times stands for: middle-of-the-road, middle-class, middle-aged Britain? As someone once the said, ‘the only thing in the middle of the road is white paint and dead animals.’

The Times and Sunday Times are to have two separate websites, each independently updated. This means even though the Sunday Times is printed only on a Sunday, it will be updating the web with new content throughout the week.

And what about the experience of reading the Times or the Sunday Times online?

Well, at first impressions I am not bowled over: black text on a white screen, size 12, serif font – just like every other news website out there (and even this blog!). A web page can be any colour and fully dynamic – a concept no major newsroom is yet to grasp.

I was taken to task on this though by Times Assistant Editor Tom Whitwell who insists they looked at different options. There are apparently fewer stories on the front page, leaving it less cluttered. The experience is also more visual with larger front page images, and a chance to explore the top news stories in pictures (a cue taken, perhaps, from the Independent’s NewsWall produced by UltraKnowledge).

The Sunday Times website is actually quite a pleasure to navigate with a large rolling ‘shop window’ carousel and multimedia galleries. Said the editor: “we’re expecting people to browse and enjoy the experience.” Is it distinct enough from the Guardian, Telegraph, New York Times or the BBC? That’s for you  to decide.

Other cool bits include a culture planner to organise your week, and the rather neat ability to set your Sky+ box direct from the Times website, both giving the sites usability rather than just something to read. Interestingly if you wish to SpeEk You’re bRanes about the content, you’ll only be allowed to comment using your full name.

On video & multimedia

Now to the bit most readers of this blog are really interested in – the multimedia stuff.

The editor of the Sunday Times told us they’d “invested a lot of time and money in multimedia” including on a new video studio.

There’s to be a push on interactive infographics to rival the Financial Times, and multimedia photogalleries of the best images. They want to connect their journalists with their readers and there’ll be plenty of live webchats online.

But it seems there hasn’t been an investment in more multimedia staff, or a push for innovative video storytelling. Instead the investment has been in getting their current crop of journalists to create more stuff for the web, with pen still in hand. As if keeping tabs on all the news from 70% of the earth’s surface wasn’t enough, our Ocean man Frank Pope must also file video every time he goes diving.

Now that’s fine – and indeed, if the print journalists I have met in my time are anything to go by, not an easy pitch for the Times editors to have made.

But the Times or the Sunday Times won’t sew the seeds of innovation in multimedia. Tom Whitwell described having to ask columnist Caitlin Moran, who’s interview with Lady Gaga just went viral, to do some video on the story. The problem: Caitlin is on a ‘writer’s retreat’ in Brighton apparently.

Will any of their video journalists be treated to a ‘video retreat’?

(NOTE: Caitlin is doing a live webchat about meeting Gaga at 1200 BST today)

Is it worth the money?

That was the one question everyone asked when I tweeted from last night’s preview. And I’ve needed to sleep on it to make my mind up.

Here’s the numbers: for a single day’s access it’ll cost you (in 4 weeks time) one of your English pounds. But you can get a whole week’s access for £2 – so if you’re interested, don’t bother paying by the day.

And actually…£2 for access to comment and analysis from a good newspaper – and topped off with access to the Sunday Times is almost, almost, worth paying for….

You can try speculating about whether Rupert’s paywall will work, but whatever your conclusion you’ll probably be wrong. So let’s bring on the wall …and see what happens.

Other commentary about the paywall…


8 Responses

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  1. IanVisits said, on May 25, 2010 at 8:06 am

    I’ll presume it is a launch bug (a big bug) or is hidden behind the sign-up pages, but there doesn’t seem to be a RSS feed for the new website.

    Even after they go behind a paywall, people will still be interested in getting the headlines, and the RSS feed could a way of driving people to the subscription page.

    In addition, if I were to choose to pay for the site, I get ALL my news via RSS now, and would not expect to have to manually visit the website to find out if anything new has been published.

  2. Adam Westbrook said, on May 25, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I don’t think there’s even an RSS option (according to a couple of other blogs I’ve read, like this one

    The content is totally non-sharable, although I guess you can share it with other members.

    They’ve put a lot of effort into the design so I think they want everyone to experience the content on their website alone…controversial, I know..

  3. nsharona said, on May 25, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    From the previews you’ve posted I do like the look of it, if we’re talking purely aesthetics. But, I still can’t see a consumer paying for web content like this. Like you said, they aren’t quite niche enough (and even then!). I would say they should put this effort into building an iPad app instead, where a pay-model is so much more viable right now. People expect to pay for apps, while users are still ingrained with the notion that everything online should be free. The lack of sharing will be interesting to note as well. I’ve heard the phrase “the age of the cut & paste web” thrown around, so I wonder how well they’ll fair going against this concept. At any rate, E for effort. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. diving-panglao said, on May 25, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Great site 😉

  5. peter said, on May 25, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    It’s a very bold move.

    Also a desperate one – what choice do they have really?

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