The Bold Publishing Strategy That Turned a Traditional Newspaper Into a Digital Leader
How bucking the trend of round-the-clock digital publishing led to an enormous payoff for The Times and The Sunday Times
Design a future-fit approach to digital news production in order to attract and retain subscribers to The Times and The Sunday Times.
The company pivoted away from 24/7 content churn and invested in producing four daily digital editions, which have driven 19% year-on-year growth for paid digital subscriptions.
For more than two centuries, The Times held a strong reputation as a storied British newspaper. Then came the digital deluge. Publication after publication began adopting a relentless online publishing schedule aimed at capturing eyeballs and subscribers, and guarding against waning advertising sales and print readership. But The Times and its sister publication The Sunday Times thought there might be a different way forward.
As Editor John Witherow explains, “the power of an edition” had long endured at The Times, but began to erode amid a round-the-clock breaking news cycle. Witherow didn’t want to do away with editions, but rather to update the model for the digital age. Times owner News UK approached IDEO in 2014 to explore exactly that: what the edition of the future might look like and how its design could drive revenue and subscribers.
IDEO’s research and design phase included interviews with readers, journalists, editors, and marketers at News UK. The team found that people’s reading modes vary—some reflecting new digital behaviors and others adhering more closely to paper-reading styles.
Readers, the team learned, chose The Times for its editorial opinion: a perspective that cuts through the overwhelming flood of information. They viewed the daily Times and weekend Sunday Times as one paper, despite the organizational distinction. And they were proud of their choice, valuing the papers’ consistency, trustworthiness, balance, and authoritativeness. Readers wanted these qualities distilled in a digital edition, whether on a smartphone, tablet, or on the web.
Those insights led to strategic recommendations spanning digital products, editorial, advertising integration, online membership offers, and social sharing. But the boldest among those was a publishing strategy that seemed to run counter to media trends: abandoning a real-time approach in favor of publishing separate digital editions.
The Times in March 2016 introduced an editions-based publishing schedule, with new editions available across all platforms four times each weekday: overnight, 9am, noon and 5pm; the weekend schedule shrank to three editions. A year in, they had broken that schedule fewer than a dozen times—making exceptions for major moments like the terror attack in central London and David Bowie’s death—but even in those cases, The Times refrained from incessant updates, instead resuming its regular pacing.
Across platforms, the new Times balances visual consistency with flexibility to make the most of each device’s qualities.
“The way we’re publishing now, taking our time over news...taking a more considered view of the world, it’s helped us offer something different from everything else,” digital news head Alan Hunter told Digiday in 2018. Readers demonstrated that this different approach was something they’d been wanting.
In the first half of 2016, new paying-subscriber sales were up 200% as compared to the same period in 2015. At the end of June 2016, there were 413,600 subscribers to The Times and The Sunday Times, up 3.4% from a year prior. Of those, 182,500 were digital-only subscriptions—a 6% rise and a notable figure given how much online news can be obtained for free.
Through collaboration with IDEO, News UK's own digital teams capabilities grew, enabling them to implement and evolve their new digital strategy. The capabilities of the newsroom grew, too: “The decision to move to four editions a day has freed up tremendous resources to focus on big stories,” says Emma Tucker, Editor of The Sunday Times—the kind of stories that "supercharge engagement." The approach is working: By August 2019 digital subscriptions had increased 19% year-on-year to 300,000, showing the progress the legacy publisher has made in attracting readers to its online proposition. Total subscribers for the two titles' print and digital products now stand at 539,000, and their websites total five million registered users.
More than 230 years after its first edition was published, the new Times has established solid footing in the digital age and designed its own future—one based not on the habits of its competitors but on its legacy and the reading behaviors of its audience.