When your journalism is behind a paywall how do you make social media work for you? It’s a conundrum The Times and The Sunday Times have been wrestling with ever since the two papers went down the paid route in 2010. And because their paywalls are less leaky than the rest – no 20 article threshold like the Telegraph, no social sharing like the New York Times – it’s a puzzle News International, the papers’ publisher, has struggled to solve.
Two moves in the past few weeks are testament to this.
- October 8, 2009
First The Times decided to close its Opinion Tumblr, a forum for op-ed/blog posts aimed at subscribers and non-subscribers alike. No sooner had I praised it here than it was gone. According the paper’s development team the Times Opinion Tumblr “wasn’t quite right” even though it “flourished in parts”. It had attracted 66,000 followers since launch a year ago.
In its place users are being directed to Comment Central, The Times’ rolling blog. Unfortunately, Comment Central lives behind the paywall. I say unfortunately because it should instead be acting as a calling card for would-be Times subscribers.
Pre-2010 – when it was run by Daniel Finkelstein and Hattie Garlick – Comment Central was a vibrant and essential read especially for those who wanted to keep across the political beat. (It was in part the inspiration behind The Staggers, the rolling blog we launched on Newstatesman.com in December 2009.)
A blog like Comment Central really needs to be free. There simply isn’t the community among the subscriber base to make it thrive and blogs work best when thoughts are shared, posts link out and are linked to, and discussions are prompted by the opinions and insights expressed. All that needs to happen beyond the walled garden of a single publication.
Moreover, it should be there as a showcase for the paper’s fine journalism. That’s why it’s a shame NI didn’t invest more of its energies in the Tumblr experiment.
The second move was revealed earlier this week. The papers’ development team has created a tool that alerts staff journalists to the key stories they should be retweeting. The tool also makes the act of retweeting – passing on the original message to your own network of followers and thus increasing its reach – easier. Explaining the purpose of “The retweeter”, Ben Whitelaw wrote:
Owning an story can be hard on social media when you operate a subscription model. Not all of our followers or fans have access to The Times or The Sunday Times and therefore can’t access the full article when you post a link from an account like @thetimes or @thesundaytimes.
This means that people often read a rewritten version of our story on another news site. We thought about how we could change this and realised that our best weapon was our journalists, each with their own network of followers and fans.
As a result of using ‘The retweeter’, Whitelaw continued, The Sunday Times lobbygate splash from 9 June was “retweeted by 30 people, most of whom were Sunday Times staff”.
The intention is laudable and it’s always good to see a newspaper experimenting in this way. However, there are a number of flaws in the approach. Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton spotted two:
(a) 30 retweets for the lead Page 1 story for The Sunday Times still seems a little underwhelming, and (b) I imagine promotion by your own journalists, while valuable, can only go so far when your story itself is stuck behind a paywall.
The latter is a well-known source of irritation inside both papers, where beat journalists complain that rivals wait for The Times to break a story before repackaging it (suitably attributed, of course) and cleaning up via social media, taking the hits and the plaudits.
There’s a third problem with ‘The retweeter’ approach. Retweets have significantly more power if the person relaying the message adds a comment or an endorsement or reworks it some way in his or her own voice. Straight, verbatim retweets carry less impact. It’s social media, after all.
Back in the mid/late 2000s search engines drove most people to The Times, accounting for up to 70 per cent of the traffic at one time, according to one senior editorial executive. That was pre-paywall and that was before social began to offer a serious alternative source of high volume traffic.
News International concluded that it couldn’t turn those passing eyeballs into a viable commercial model – and the majority of newspaper groups either side of the Atlantic have come to a similar conclusion.
But a subscription model doesn’t negate the need to create buzz around your journalism. After all, it’s the quality of that journalism that you are selling and to do that effectively you have to show some leg, you have to give non-subscribers a taste of what they are missing, you have to give some of it away for free.
You need to use social media effectively to spread the word. That means no matter how many staffers retweet a cracking page one splash, the link needs to lead somewhere that’s not “sign up here”.
This month’s activity at NI suggests that people at the The Times and The Sunday Times understand the potential power of social media only too well—and that they are still looking for the answer.
Jon Bernstein is a freelance digital media consultant. You can read his personal blog here.