“Making The Times digital” - Lucia Adams at Online Information

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 21 November 2012

Lucia Adams began her talk at Online Information by pointing out that she always has to double-check her dates when she is about to say that the iPad was launched in 2010. “2010 sounds far too recent, given how intrinsic the iPad feels to our world now” she said. Lucia is Digital Development Editor at The Times, and was outlining the journey of a 200 year old newspaper publisher into multi-platform publishing.

The Times were the first British newspaper to have an iPad edition, and when they were working on it, Lucia explained, they didn’t understand the device, have the skills, or know how to work with the SDK or code-base. She said they “knew it could do powerful things” and came up with lots of crazy and wacky ideas, like perhaps if you blew on it a video would start playing, or if you shook the device the pages would turn. But every time the specs for what they were proposing would go off to the rest of the business, the feedback would shape it into something that more and more resembled the print product. Lucia said they had been very “brave” to launch a digital edition that was exactly the same in the evening as it was in the morning, regardless of any news developments.

I think all the flashy widget ideas may have ended up in the Times Eureka magazine iPad edition — I once saw a fantastic talk by Matt Curtis and Madeleine Penny about the design process behind that.

Lucia had been at the Times as they had put their general news behind a paywall. I’ve always said I’m glad someone in the UK did it, because it gave the rest of the industry a case study. Lucia said that there was an incredible amount of negative publicity surrounding the move, and they couldn’t have hoped to have the figures they ended up with. After a year they had 100,000 digital users, and now the digital revenue from subscriptions plus advertising is more than their revenue used to be from advertising alone.

She suggested that whilst most British news organisations were still committed to giving away their web content for free, the idea of apps for smartphones and tablets had opened up a “perceptual door” for people to actually try and charge for their journalism. I remember a similar experience at the Guardian when the company shifted to charging for content with an iPhone app. In advance a lot of people couldn’t see why people would pay, but after a few months most of my testing sessions with users revealed that they thought the app was under-priced not over-priced.

Echoing what I’ve seen several people from The Times talk about before, Lucia said that the shift from “users” to “customers” had transformed their relationship with the audience. They know that their digital readers are more likely to earn over £50,000, have children, and be female than their print audience counterpart. This allows them the freedom to concentrate on more of what is important to that audience.

Lucia Adams also put a value on using simple tools wherever possible. Things like the #cyclesafe campaign interactivity can look “terribly clever from the outside”, but at the heart of it was a simple Google form. Likewise they have huge levels of engagement with their lunchtime briefing email. It isn’t designed, so it looks like it comes from a person to a person, and is using one of the oldest technologies in the stack — email — but it is incredibly successful. She said the key thing was that the idea of engagement has turned from “a fluffy nice-to-have into a real business imperative.”

Lucia’s main message though was that the incredible pace of a change was a huge challenge and disruption for publishers. “The conversations that we have about new platforms seem to be happening more and more often” she said, suggesting that making the decisions to invest in publishing on different platforms, and choosing the right moment in a platform life-cycle to enter the market required continuous “acts of daring” from publishers.

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