If there’s one thing News International can do it is sell (see promo vid here), and they are going to have to sell like mad if they are to make a success of the gated websites for The Times and Sunday Times.
The sites, which went live today to registered users, look fantastic. They may well turn out to be the best newspaper websites in the world.
But because they are all but invisible to Google and other search engines, the danger is only those who are Times readers anyway will bother to search them out.
Last night News International executives gave a few bloggers and media writers a preview of the sites. ‘It’s the Times but better”â€¦”The first newspaper websites made for the internet”â€¦”What the Times does is journalism and we have tried to create a platform for doing that.”
It all reminded me of a similar, but somewhat more lavish, briefing I attended at News International in 2003 when they launched a CD-Rom supplement called The Month for the Sunday Times.
At the time it was billed by News Int as the biggest thing in Sunday newspapers since the launch of colour supplements and had a claimed £10m in backing behind it.
It vanished without trace in just under two years not because it wasn’t a fantastic product, it was – and unlike these new websites it was free to newspaper readers. But for whatever reason, newspaper readers did not want to fiddle around sticking a CD rom in their computers on a Sunday morning.
We just don’t know whether there is a market out there for paid-for newspaper websites like these. If there isn’t, then it won’t matter how good they are or how many millions News Int throws at them – they aren’t going to work.
Editors often say that it is too late to put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to free content online.
The launch of these website today is an attempt not just to but the genie back in the bottle but to encase that bottle in concrete and then lob it into the Thames.
Not only will these sites be paid-for but everything which is not on the home-pages will be invisible to search engines.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger talks about the end of the era when journalists handed down the news on tablets of stone, and the dawn of a new mutualised conversation where journalists are part of the internet.
These websites are the tablets of stone in digital form. Editors pick the best stories and present them to readers. They have declared an an end to the comment free-for-all which goes on at sites like The Guardian, Daily Mail – and Press Gazette for that matter. If you want to comment on The Times and Sunday Times, you do so under your full name – signalling an end to the anonymous catty sniping that fills up many news sites.
This is Rupert Murdoch and News International saying that the internet is our servant, not the other way around, and we will use it as we see fit to dictate our vision of a newspaper website.
It is incredibly bold and a massive gamble. But like that CD-rom, success or failure is now out of the hands of Murdoch and in that of the great British news-reading public.