Since the arrival of the consumer Internet, it's become axiomatic in the media industry that a news site should be updated whenever there is news—in other words, every minute of every day.
News Corp., however, is taking a different approach with two of its British newspapers: The Times of London and the Sunday Times. The website belonging to the two publications will only be updated four times a day.
The motivating force behind this model, Times executives say, is that breaking news has more or less become a commodity because anyone with a website—or even just a smartphone and a Twitter account—can publish news as fast or faster than a newspaper. So the Times explains it has decided to focus on adding analysis and context.
"The power of an edition has endured at the Times for more than 230 years. Our challenge is to update this concept for the digital age: to put readers first and cut through the babble," Times of London editor John Witherow told The Guardian.
The Times explains it will break into this publishing schedule when there is extraordinary news, such as the recent bombings in Paris. But for the most part, the site will be updated four times a day from this point forward. The hours chosen—midnight, 9 a.m., noon and 5 p.m.—correspond to the periods in which traffic to the Times website normally peaks.
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"Hitting these times gives us a great opportunity to report more in-depth, to get things right, to provide analysis on the breaking news that happens throughout the day, but also to serve readers at the times they want it," Times head of digital Alan Hunter told the Nieman Journalism Lab. "They want a package of news so they feel up-to-date."
Until now, publishing at specific times has been more of a tablet-based model than a web-based one. The Daily, an abortive attempt at a tablet newspaper launched by News Corp. in 2011 (at an estimated cost of more than $60 million) was updated several times a day.
Other newspaper companies, including Canada's Postmedia, have experimented with apps that update at specific times, but those have been largely unsuccessful. Still, the Times says the success of its tablet apps convinced the paper to try the model online.
The Times newspapers are in a somewhat different position from news publishers such as The Guardian or the Daily Mail in the sense that the two News Corp. titles have a hard paywall. There is no metered access, as there is with a site like the New York Times, and until recently there was no "social media pass-through" either, although the papers have apparently relented on that with the new design and will now allow non-subscribers to read a link shared on Twitter or Facebook or by email.
Given the hard paywall model, the Times of London is arguably under somewhat less pressure to constantly be publishing news in the hope of attracting new readers for the advertising revenue they might generate. There's also the added phenomenon of the BBC, which runs a massive website filled with free news funded by British taxpayers, something that makes the daily news business even more competitive.
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"Readers don’t come to us for breaking news; they can go to the BBC and Twitter for that, which are free," Hunter told Digiday. “They come to us for the authority of our reporting, opinion and analysis. Breaking news has become a commodity, and it’s hard to charge people for it. We believe in the power of digital editions."
Can a newspaper make a four-times-daily publishing schedule work? That depends on what you mean by the term "work." While that approach may work well for retaining existing readers, it suffers from the same kind of problem that a hard paywall does: attracting new readers. It's possible that News Corp. doesn't really care about doing that. But if it does, then News Corp. has likely just made its job even harder (although the social sharing helps).
Publishing strategist and journalism instructor Adam Tinworth suggests in a blog post about the changes at the Times that while the strategy may be flawed, at least the newspapers are trying something different.
"If there’s one issue the whole industry is sticking its head in the sand over—it’s the over-supply of news," Tinworth writes. "We have far too much of it, and too much of it is repetitious without bringing anything new to the table."
The news business is "a hard, vicious and expensive game to play in, with high staff costs, intense pressure and a deep reliance on an ever shifting advertising market," continues Tinworth. "We need other models of news. The crew at The Times and The Sunday Times are to be commended for trying something different—something that has the potential to mix the best of digital and print thinking in a whole new way."