The Timeses Go Back-To-Basics With Print-Centric New Multimedia Sites

Rupert Murdoch’s Times Newspapers has gone ahead with the launch of separate and websites as planned.

They are free for a month to those who had created a free Times+ account to register their interest, but will start charging £1 a day and £2 a week in about four weeks time, becoming the first of News Corp.’s big consumer news sites to start charging.

News International staged a preview for journalists at its Wapping, London, HQ Monday night. We found two well-functioning, focused products that clearly execute on a mission to renew a sense of the printed news package…

A printy website

Some have criticised the look of the new sites for too closely resembling newsprint. They’re wrong – the connection was deliberate and the products function as websites, not newspapers, should – carrying a newly-focused roster of news and features plus some excellent online-specific infographics and multimedia. The web presentation effectively conveys the aim – to regenerate an online aesthetic of The Times and Sunday Times; you really feel like you’re reading the brands.

But there’s a ballsy desire to map the economics of print-era content publishing on to the new sites, as borne out by refusing to give even excerpts to search engines or users originating from them. Whether you think that’s backward, as some web industry folk will claim, or a necessary reassertion of value in order to save its journalism from pennilessness, as the Timeses say; that’s up to you…

“We can make the experience the newspaper, but better,” Times executive editor Danny Finkelstein said. “It’s heavily influenced by what people recognise as The Times.” Said Finkelstein: “I know people will buy The Times (online) because they already do (in print). I know people will buy The Sunday Times (online) because they already do (in print).”

The group is talking up “integration”. That’s ironic, since it was former new media director Annelies van den Belt who integrated the papers’ previously separate presences in to a single Times Online some years back. Now, the papers are going further with “integration”, giving paper section editors responsibility over equivalent web indices – but only as separate titles…

An amicable divorce

The sites are being talked of as two entirely separate products, with a link between each. So why split Times Online? “Great though that site has been over the years, there’s been a keen wish that both papers should have their own identity online,” said Sunday Times executive editor Tristan Davies – suggesting there’s more value in replicating the print brands than retaining the web identity.

Having separated, the sites have obviously reached a clear understanding on what differentiates them from each other – as well as from rival newspapers. Having looked at the traffic, they see’s strengths as news, business and sport – strengths shared by on Sunday and Monday morning, but that site becomes more featurey throughout the week, highlighting supplements’ other material on what is a very visual homepage…

“That’s why this has a very magaziney look and feel, it’s a site that’s been built for exploring,” Davies said. All Sunday Times content apart from blogs will be published on a Sunday only but a front-page carousel will rotate to surface different pieces through the week. “We know people read the sections all the way through the week,” Davies added. “Some of the articles we produce in the paper have a shelf life well beyond the Sunday, unless you’re one of those people who can consume it all in three hours.”

This all rather undoes the integration that van den Belt accomplished, but it reasserts the papers’ brand value, which had been lost within Times Online. The question is, does the offline brand recognition of yesteryear’s self-contained domestic media landscape necessarily translate in to today’s globalised, pluralistic online environment? Maybe brand is all important, or maybe brands need to adjust their approach to audience as well as to product.

A new focus

The sites are reveling in the opportunity to look to their print forebears in a redefinition exercise, and it’s one that works on many levels. It’s boldness is that it’s back-to-basics…

“We were seeing that there’s an infinite number of ideas out there for presenting journalism,” said The Times assistant editor Tom Whitwell. “We didn’t want to become all of those things all at once. We don’t want to become a news aggregator, a social network; what The Times does is journalism.”

As well as bearing strong resemblance to their print counterparts – yet without erring away from functioning as web products – the sites significantly de-clutter the available content presented to readers, when compared with many busy rival sites. Even different sections boast different layouts from each other, attempting to break with formulaic web templates.

“It’s trying to say, ‘we’re not going to show you all the news, you’re going to get our take on the news,” Whitwell added. “Then we try to enhance that news with the things you can only do online.”

Multimedia difference

It’s these added extras that inject some native web juice in to otherwise conventional presentation of strong Times content. Infographics and video enhance the telling of the BP oil spill story, uses a People Gallery to direct readers in to text interviews, and a custom Stlye Barometer widget uses Flash to tell you which fashion’s hot and which is not.

The Culture Planner, about which we have previously reported, is present and correct on, offering Sky+ remote record and theatre bookings through a series of retail affiliates that Davies declined to name.

It’s great to see the publisher using the medium’s capabilities – but will they appeal to a broad constituency beyond existing Times loyalists?

Smaller = better?

Times bosses are acknowledging traffic will drop behind the wall, but that may even be an advantage, Whitwell ventured to say, perhaps somewhat glass-half-full: “When you do a football (live) chat, you’ll get 4,000 or 5,000 people coming through and 500 questions – that’s nice, but not very useful. Now this allows us to build personal conections between users and journalists.”

Added Finkelstein: “I still think we’ll have impact – Times columnists have always had impact. There was more than a century and a half in which Times columnists had impact.

“I’m completely comfortable with the idea that my material will be read by people that paid to read it. I absolutely know that I could write material for free and put it out – but I’d rather be writing for The Times.”