Behind the Times’ new paywall

The time is near for putting to the test Rupert Murdoch’s rhetoric about the value of digital journalism and the evils of Google.

The Times and the Sunday Times will unveil their new (separate) websites to the public “imminently” – perhaps as soon as Tuesday. Within four weeks, the paywall barriers will be raised. All but the homepage will be invisible to those refusing to pay £1 a day – and that includes Google’s spiders.

Earlier this evening, News International invited a few journalists and bloggers to its headquarters in Wapping, in London’s east end, to show off its new designs. Some members of the Times team seemed as keen to know what we thought of the plans as we were to see them.

Although there have been rumblings of difficulties within Wapping – from the speed of implementation down to the choice of font – there is a palpable excitement that the Times and its weekend sibling are breaking new ground. Its digital team seems to believe that most newspaper journalists, even outside the Murdoch empire, are willing them to succeed.

The world – particilarly the US – is watching this experiment, which is taking place eight months before the New York Times is supposed to launch its subscription site. It’s a true test case for the ability to compete with free general news sources – not least the BBC.

The first thing that struck me about the design of the Times is how similar it looks to its ink-and-paper parent, from the masthead to the layout of the page.

“It looks a lot like a newspaper, which I don’t think we’re apologising for,” said Tom Whitwell, assistant editor of the Times. “The article pages we think are simple and clean, and easy to read.”

He talks of a “news hierarchy”, with fewer stories thrown at the reader than most newspaper websites. “We are not going to show you all the news,” he says, comparing that favourably with “Google News showing you 4,000 versions of the same thing. We are giving you our take on the news.”

The Times’ stories will not be among those 4,000, with not even a headline visible in the Google index (or indeed that of any other search engine). Peculiarly, the existing TimesOnline site will live on after the paywall goes up for an indeterminate time, although it won’t be updated – an admission, perhaps, of how baked into the web its links already are.

The roster of features for subscribers to the Times website will include live chat with journalists, plenty of video and photo slideshows, and comments from readers using only their real names – “much more like a Facebook experience”, said Mr Whitwell, rather than the pseudonyms more commonly found in the comments section.

But the comparisons with Facebook end there. “When we started looking at the site 18 months to a year ago, we were in the middle of this renaissance in web development and innovation in journalism,” said Mr Whitwell.

“There is an almost infinite number of ideas out there. What we really thought is: We don’t necessarily want to do all those things at once. We don’t want to become a news aggregator. We don’t want to become a social network. What the Times does is journalism…. We have tried to create a platform for doing this, rather than going beyond it.”

Danny Finkelstein, comment editor of the Times, was on hand to prove that it isn’t just aging newspaper proprietors who like the idea of charging for online journalism. “We can project the Times with all its tradition and iconography, but on the web,” he enthused.

Few of the Times employees presenting their plans used the word ‘paywall’ unprompted. But Mr Finkelstein insisted this barrier would not prevent him from sharing links to his articles on Twitter or cut the newspaper out of a wider online conversation. Rivals without the protection of a paywall “won’t go viral, they will go out of business”, he said.

Although there were hints that extracts might occasionally be visible to non-subscribers in the future, the Times’ content will remain tightly locked up with not even a first paragraph to tease in new customers. This apparently aids the “clarity” of the offering, in contrast to the less binary model offered by the Wall Street Journal and the FT.

“We are unashamed about this,” said Mr Finkelstein. “We are trying to make people pay for the journalism…. I want my employer to be paid for the intellectual property they are paying me for.”

While the Times’ website’s value proposition is very much its columnists, news and analysis, the Sunday Times, which is bundled into the same £1 daily or £2 weekly cost, will offer a few more bells and whistles.

Tristan Davies, executive editor of the Sunday Times, is well aware that readers won’t visit his site for news, business or sport stories much after Monday lunchtime.

So although the bulk of the content – beyond a few blog posts – won’t be updated after each Sunday, the site’s image-led interface will “surface” different stories and features throughout the week. “It’s a site designed for exploring and browsing,” Mr Davies said.

Most pages centre on a “carousel” of images linking to videos, features and multimedia slideshows. Interactive graphics, largely done in Flash, will be “very important”, as will “interactive articles” packaging text with galleries and video overlays. This is not a site designed to be used on an iPad (for which apps are in the works, but with no release date).

An avatar of Mrs Mills, the paper’s witty guide to social etiquette, is on hand to show readers around and promote stories. A ‘How your paper works’ section will run interviews with columnists such as AA Gill. The ‘Culture planner’ will allow readers to click from the site’s calendar to buy CDs and theatre tickets from as-yet-unnamed partners. In a neat piece of News Corp integration, the TV guide has buttons to allow subscribers to Sky TV to set their digital recorders with a few mouse clicks. (There was no mention of the rumoured bundling of Times website access with a Sky subscription.)

It’s a slick package, although whether well-bundled, good content is enough of a differentiator from everything on Google News remains to be seen. For me, the biggest surprise is that the Times is not planning a splashy ad campaign to launch the paywall – it is relying chiefly on promotion in the newspaper.

It’s a low-key – and very analogue – start to one of the biggest experiments in modern digital media.