Times of London shares 10 lessons learned in a decade of paid content

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


The Times of London, one of the world’s most iconic news brands, put up its paywall 10 years ago this month. On Wednesday, INMA members took part in a Webinar presented by Alan Hunter, head of digital, who shared what The Times has learnt during that decade.

From pricing to product development, Hunter discussed how The Times is setting its sights on the next big challenge for publishers: providing truly digital journalism for audiences who never bought a print newspaper.

Before diving in, Hunter clarified that the company is actually two newspapers: The Times of London and The Sunday Times. Each has a separate editorial team, but the digital product is the same across seven days.

Alan Hunter of The Times of London presented a Webinar on 10 things the company has learned in a decade of paywall.
Alan Hunter of The Times of London presented a Webinar on 10 things the company has learned in a decade of paywall.

Hunter introduced himself as a “reformed print journalist” who believes journalists should play an active role in the intersection between journalism and product.

Hunter shared 10 lessons that The Times has learned in its decade of a digital paywall.

Lesson 1: Don’t give your content away

Media companies often undervalue their content. When The Times sold its first digital subscriptions in 2010, Huner said, the price was £2 per week and promised “Your daily newspaper and much, much more” in its marketing.

More than 50,000 print subscribers, who had been paying £1.50 per day, suddenly cancelled their print subscriptions and moved to digital.

“That was good for digital, but not great for the P&L,” Hunter said. “We entered a period of what felt like perpetual price rises. We increased them about every 18 months. On each occasion, there was a lot of fear and worrying about churn.”

Every time, however, the price increase went off without a hitch. The digital subscription price is now £6 per week.

“I understand the need to give customers the right trial and expense of product before buying,” Hunter said. “But this pressure to put things free always comes when a big story breaks. I try always to resist. In my view, if you’re going to charge, you’ve got to be really confident that what you’re charging for is worth paying for. Why would you give away your best or most important stories?”

This dilemma presented itself when the coronavirus hit. Many newspapers were making their content around it free, but The Times didn’t. Its view was there were plenty of places where people could get public service information, and The Times was not going to give away its journalism, Hunter said. In fact, it took away sales deals and only sold digital subscriptions at the full price of £26 per month or £15 for mobile-only.

“Guess what? The sales were stellar over this period,” Hunter reported.

Legacy media brands should be proud of that heritage, which gives them a huge advantage over digital native brands, he said.

Lesson 2: Remember you’re selling news, not coffee machines

The Times was lucky in that it launched paid digital subscriptions at the same time Apple launched the iPad. Large iPad sales drove subscriptions for the correlated Times digital product. At the end of the first year, The Times had 100,000 digital subscribers.

“I think what this did is give us an exaggerated view of other devices or products in selling our own product,” Hunter said. “It was a mistake we made early, and I think repeated for far too long.” 

The Times fell into a habit of giving things away to entice people to subscribe, such as Android tablets, Spotify subscriptions, espresso machines, and iPad Minis, Hunter said: “In every case, when viewed in the long term, these offers failed and we no longer do them.”

The subscribers who came on board because of those offerings were their least engaged. Some never logged into the news product at all.

“I think the lesson here is that no amount of smart bundling can take the place of great journalism,” Hunter said. “Ultimately, and we shouldn’t forget it, this is what we are selling.”

Alan Hunter says it's important to remember that digital news is a completely different discipline than print.
Alan Hunter says it's important to remember that digital news is a completely different discipline than print.

Lesson 3: Digital news is really different

While a news publisher’s digital product may look very similar to its print product, in Hunter’s view they are completely different disciplines.

The Times wanted to make sure that its brand was instantly recognisable to people who transferred from print to digital, from look to hierarchy. This offered some advantages, mainly in that visitors to the Web site immediately know it is The Times, even without seeing the masthead.

“The shift from print to digital is like the transition from theatre to the movies,” Hunter said. “Both are acting in telling a story, but very soon after movies came along it became apparent that the skills required to succeed on celluloid were very different from theatre.”

The uses and needs and expectations, the journeys to the products, the dynamics of the marketplace, and internal disciplines are all different between print and digital.

For The Times, the audiences are not only different, but the actual production of each product is as well. In addition, the data points measured for digital are vast compared to the rather simple feedback that determined if a print story was successful. This gives them a far more detailed look into what their subscribers and potential subscribers want.

Retaining the established structure and hierarchy of print doesn’t make the process of managing digital easy, Hunter said. Digital requires new organisation structures and skills. He admitted The Times hasn’t completely put these new structures into place — and the reason is lesson No. 4.

Lesson 4: Culture change is the hardest thing in digital

The Times has 200 years of history pulling it towards print, which is a fairly simple business with largely unchanged structures. With digital, it is often the youngest and most junior of staff members who know the most, which Hunter says is a huge challenge within the company culture.

However, he added that journalists are generally adaptable and curious — and they want their content to be read. The Times has seen its journalists embrace the digital transformation with enthusiasm, for the most part. As an organisation, it also acknowledges it’s unrealistic to expect all of the print people to immediately transition their mindset, and they must be given time to develop new skill sets.

“We are still not, as a whole, digital first, but we are properly laying the foundations. And key to that has been employing a group of digital revolutionaries.”

Lesson 5: What you don’t do is as important as what you do

This is mostly an issue of leadership, Hunter said. One area that The Times has had particular success is in the things that it hasn’t done.

The very nature of the rapidly changing world of digital is that it’s very easy to constantly chase the “next big thing.” In his tenure at The Times, Hunter mentioned several “next big things” that have come and gone: distributed content on the big platforms, snack content, virtual reality, video, and social media phenomena such as TikTok and Snapchat.

It’s not to say that these developments might not be a part of a publisher’s strategy, but focusing on any one of them as the “saviour” element is risky.

“In all of these cases, experimentation is often used as an excuse for a lack of perhaps judgment,” Hunter said. “I wish more people would have more confidence to say, ‘No, that’s not for us. It doesn’t work with our business model, let’s move on to things that do.’”

He was quick to point out that he wasn’t saying not to experiment — just don’t experiment with everything. That’s where distraction lies.

Lesson 6: When you do something, really commit to it

When a publisher does decide to experiment with something that fits its brand or marketing strategy, make sure to give it the absolute best chance of succeeding.

The Times has experimented with numerous things that haven’t worked, and Hunter attributed that to just “sticking their toes in the water” rather than really committing.

One such example was an idea to launch a separate subscription offering aimed at the legal profession. The Times offered a daily e-mail, The Brief, offering in-depth analysis and commentary on legal issues.

“The problem was, we didn’t really take on any new staff to do this,” he said. “We thought we could do it with existing resources, and we expected the content to come mostly from our legal editor [and her team].”

Unfortunately, and through no fault of the journalists, they were unable to provide the kind of high-end, regular content on top of their other responsibilities that was required for a premium paid offering. The Times ended up retreating from the idea.

Counter that with a new offering that was given the dedicated resources that it needed — Times Radio, which just launched the week prior. “This is not just a couple of people in a radio station seeing how it goes,” Hunter shared. “This is a full, national radio launch, and we have really committed to this.”

The team sees Times Radio as an opportunity to talk to an audience they haven’t reached with print or digital subscriptions. The early signs are very encouraging.

Lesson 7: Editions still have huge value

Apart from charging for online content, the most controversial thing The Times has done in the last decade is moving to edition-based publishing on the Web site and smartphone app.

The idea of editions might sound counter-intuitive, given that the nature of digital news means content can be published immediately, 24 hours a day, without being subject to deadlines, Hunter said. 

“It gradually became clear that 24/7 breaking news is a commodity. You can’t charge for something that is so widely available. In the U.K. this is something that’s done quite well by the BBC.”

News publishers need to be distinctive, however. “People will only pay for things that are original,” Hunter said. Breaking news, by and large, isn’t — unless a publisher is very first to an exclusive story.

The last reason The Times has stuck with editions is because it was clear that’s what their readers want in the digital product. They were not reading the news constantly throughout the day or opting-in for notifications, but rather checking in a few times a day for information.

“They also told us it was the authority of our news that they came for, not the speed with which we can get it out,” Hunter added. “We asked readers if they’d like us to be quick or they’d like us to be right — and they all said right.”

This has been borne out in the results: readers are more engaged, spend more time with content, and read about four times more articles since The Times went to edition digital publishing.

Lesson 8: Less is more

Until recently, in Hunter’s view The Times published far too much content. “When we recently cut our story count, engagement went up.”

On the Web site and app, they initially cut their story count by about 10%, and then upped that to 20%.

“Often readers are ‘one-and-done’ on any particular topic. Our data shows that we have core readers who will read absolutely everything we publish. But mostly people will pick and choose — on average, about 10 stories a day. So our job is to make sure that those stories are the absolute best you can read on that topic today anywhere in the world.”

It can be a challenge to focus on depth of content rather than quantity, he said, but the strategy pays off for The Times, which focuses on stellar, original journalism.

Lesson 9: Habit is everything

This lesson has a subtitle: You’ll know really quickly if you’ve got subscribers hooked.

“All our metrics suggest that the most important thing that keeps people reading is habit,” Hunter said. “Much more important than getting them to read one more story on a visit is getting them to come back tomorrow.”

They track this closely; currently about one-quarter of The Times’ subscriber base is visiting every day. The team can tell from day one if a reader is going to be extremely regular or not, Hunter said. If they are going to build habit, they do so immediately. There are some indicating factors for this:

  • They download the app.
  • They sign up for newsletters.

On the other hand, those who sign up because of a special offer are less likely to be regular readers or to remain subscribers. “We can predict pretty accurately whether a subscriber will churn in a matter of days, and this means we changed our onboarding programme.”

They went from a monthlong onboarding process to a series of e-mails that span just a few days after subscription.

Habit has also led The Times to try new things centred around developing reader habits. An example of this is producing serialised novels.

Publishers must focus on their readers first and commit to audience-focused publishing, says Alan Hunter.
Publishers must focus on their readers first and commit to audience-focused publishing, says Alan Hunter.

Lesson 10: Audience-based publishing is the future

This was a personal factor Hunter had learnt over the past decade, he said. “I believe that the successful digital brands of the future will focus their operations on delivering the right content to many different audiences.”

What this means for The Times is that the team has to consider that their readers are not just the average or typical Times demographic, but they are a diverse group with varied interests and points of view.

“So the question then is how do you serve all of them, especially if you’re seeking to be distinctive in everything you do?”

The Times addressed this during last year’s election, when they produced different pieces aimed at different reader groups, from obsessives and young readers to disengaged users and international readers. Through content aimed at these differing viewpoints, they saw greater engagement across the board.

This requires journalists to really think about the purpose of each piece. Rather than be bound by traditional newspaper sections, the content should revolve around the audiences’ interests.

Another thing they are seeing from readers is a growing interest in solutions, rather than just being presented with the problems.

“I think that we need to balance the strengths of The Times and The Sunday Times as we seek to find these new audiences,” Hunter said.

He admitted that for any publisher to do this, there would be times when resources would be stretched. “You have to be really focused on what you do and don’t do, you’re going to have to publish less of traditional news stories. It’s a real balancing act because you have to keep your traditional print legacy readers happy, too.”

It’s difficult, but if a publisher gets it right engagement and subscriptions, perhaps even advertising, will go up, Hunter said: “I’m utterly convinced there’s a bright future for paid content, but we really need to make sure that we embrace all of these opportunities.”

Banner image courtesy of freestocks on Unsplash.

About Shelley Seale

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