The Times paywall – some questions to mull over
I was invited to a preview of the Times / Sunday Times paywall last night, which revealed some exciting things they're planning. In between starting this blog post and finishing it, the new sites went live at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/ and http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/.
The launch threw up a number of questions - which no doubt they'll be mulling over and working on. The biggest one for me is why users would want to pay for two different websites covering the same subjects?
What's on offer?
The plan is to replace the current site - timesonline.co.uk - with two new sites, one for The Times and one for The Sunday Times.
£2 a week (or £1 for an individual day) buys you access to both sites. There isn't an option to get just one site.
The Times proposition
The Times won't try to be a news wire - it'll be offering fewer stories on its home page than most online newspapers with the aim being to enhance those stories.
Alongside the news / business / sport it will have opinion, arts and life sections.
Without the need to chase search engine traffic or page views for advertisers, the idea of covering fewer stories but in a better way sounds appealing.
Here's an article, for instance, with an information graphic and tabs to let you explore the history and different aspects of the story without leaving the page. This package of content is brilliant - it works much better as an experience than lists of related articles or auto-generated tag pages.
The Sunday Times proposition
The Sunday Times site will look very different to the Times's. It will have the sections people know from the paper. So, again there is news, sport and business - but also culture, style, travel, In Gear and the magazine.
The site won't be updated much during the week - though the aim is still for it to function as a 7-days-a-week site.
But instead of trying to compete with the Times sites for news, it will offer readers the ability to browse and explore Sunday's content over the week, concentrating on galleries, videos and interactive graphics. Here's a gallery - you don't really get a sense of it from the screenshot but there was a lot of interactivity on the Sunday Times site:
Why two websites?
The decision to replace the current timesonline.co.uk site with two brands and two websites - thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk - has obviously meant some thinking about how they work together.
They seem clear enough that they are two products - a daily news site and a site that you're meant to browse all week.
But it was interesting that the reasons they talked about for this were the different editorial teams, the "different but overlapping audiences", the different values of the newspapers, and the different reasons why people buy the Sunday paper vs the weekday paper.
I get all that for print products that are published on different days.
I'm just not sure why this needs to translate into two different websites that aren't physical products and can be accessed easily on the same day ...
The Tuesday question
Take a Tuesday when I'm reading the online Times Arts section to decide what film or play to watch.
If I want to use the Sunday Times interactive culture tool (which looked great and even lets you remote control your Sky+ box) to explore reviews and book tickets then I need to go to a physically different website and browse to this tool. There's not even going to be a link to it. I don't get why they don't just make the tool available on the Times site as well ...
Or if I'm reading news about the BP oil spill on Tuesday on the Times site. How will I know there is an amazing interactive infographic on the Sunday Times site explaining what has happened so far?
Where there's overlap in subject matters, the content and functionality are split across two sites. And there's no eaasy way for users to find out what's on the other site without going there and looking - which surely people aren't going to bother to do on a regular basis on the off chance there might be something there?
The Sunday question
The Times site isn't going to get updated much on a Sunday, unless there's breaking news. So it will be interesting to see how it covers Saturday's news when they do get round to writing about it - particularly sport.
Take the Champion's League final last Saturday. In print, the Times would have analysed it in its Monday paper edition, and the Sunday Times would have done a match report.
Online I'm not sure what will happen. It doesn't seem to make sense to split this content across two websites, though. Will the Times site publish a match report online, or will this just be on the Sunday Times site? Having two match reports seems a bit odd. But reading the analysis on the Times without being able to easily get to the Sunday Times match report seems odd too.
Should they let people subscribe to just one site?
I like the different approach they are taking on the two sites. And having them as separate sites might make sense if they were comptitors or if you could subscribe to just one - but you can't.
Given you have to take both, when they have overlapping content, why physically separate it? Why not just have one sport section or one culture section where you can see the differing Times / Sunday Times take on things?
It strikes me that there is either sufficient distinction in the audience for the two brands that you let users subscribe to just one site. Or the audiences cross over so much that you combine the two sites in one and think about what makes most sense from the user's point of view.
Forcing people to subscribe to both sites but keeping them entirely separate, with no cross linking, seems a bit odd.
How will people access the site?
There were, as you can imagine, several questions about how the paywall will work in practice.
Only two pages will be accessible if you're not logged in - the homepage of the The Times site and the homepage of the Sunday Times site. If you click on a link to a story, a box appears telling you to sign up or log in.
Here's the box:
And here's what you see if you click to sign up. (As I've said before about paywalls, I think they're going to have to get this to work a LOT harder):
If you clicked on a deep link to a story, you are redirected to the homepage where the box appears (I think this sounds odder than it will be in practice although the page load speeds are a bit slow at the moment. To see it in action, click here (a deep link) and then wait for the overlay to appear ....). If you log in / sign up you are then redirected to the URL you were after.
The same is true of search engines, too - so Google won't be able to access the pages, which won't appear in Google's news or web search - with one small caveat. Google will be able to see URLs that are shown on the homepage but as it sees a login box if it tries to crawl the URL, I'm not 100% clear what happens then.
What are you getting?
There will be a 4 week period after the launch of these two new sites (a launch which was said to be "very imminent" - ie today!) where the current site and the new sites will exist together. Last night I thought they said there wouldn't be a paywall so the new sites will be fully accessible so people could see what the sites were all about. But you can't get past the homepages at the moment.
All three sites will be updated, and you'll be able to browse around the new Times and Sunday Times sites to see what they look like.
After 4 weeks, the paywall goes up and you'll need to pay to access the new sites. At that point, the old site will stop being updated. Confused? We were a bit!
As things stand, this means there will be the paid-for Times Archive, spanning 1785 to 1985. Then the current timesonline site will sit on the internet, not being updated from the end of June but with old stories still accessible. And the two new sites will run behind a paywall for any new content.
Although this seems a bit weird, I don't suppose it matters too much ...
Marketing the sites
What will be interesting to see is how they encourage people to sign up once the paywall is there - how will they show people what they'll be getting if they sign up?
There was no discussion this evening of tours or free trials or anything. I'm sure they've got something planned.
To sum up ...
Overall, they seemed to have some interesting views on what each product is and how it will work.
And I do understand the distinction they were trying to draw between a daily news site on the one hand and a weekly site on the other.
But when the daily news site is actually only 6 days a week, and covers much of the same subject matter as the weekly site ... and when they're offered as part of the same subscription with no option to just get one ... that's when I start to get a bit confused.
Have they projected their internal structure onto the websites they offer customers at the expense of the user experience?
Or do they have a much better grasp of what their audiences want on different days and in different modes?
Only time - and The Timeses - will tell (< sorry).