There is a great deal of puzzlement in The Times newsroom about the proposed switch to ‘edition-based’ publishing across its digital media.
We are told that the decision came after consultants looked at the website’s traffic patterns.
Yes, it may make sense to release stories around the peak traffic times. And yes, The Times may have decided that it cannot compete against the BBC and similar organisations for breaking news, so why not play to its strengths and release considered news items with authoritative commentary rather than rush out raw news as it breaks?
But the concern among journalists in The Times newsroom is that they will look slow and unresponsive if news is corralled into holding pens ready to be released when the audience hits its peaks. It has taken a long time to get The Times to stop resting on its laurels as ‘the paper of record’ and to behave like a modern news organization. Surely, now is not the time to regress to the arrogance of former times?
Either way, it raises a very good question about the place of editions in the digital world. Should they exist at all or should all ‘content’ be published instantly in an endless stream?
Back to basics
In the paper world, editions existed for economical reasons: because the newspaper boy has to drop a bundle on the doorstep, printing presses run at their optimum when fed millions of repeat jobs and because journalists are absolutely useless without a deadline.
Take all that bundled discipline away and the result can easily degrade into a ticker-tape of babble, often without sense or context. That’s at least what it can feels like being on the receiving end – have you ever tried to watch BBC News 24 for a solid hour?
There is an interesting middle way emerging in app publishing. The generic term is ‘continous publishing’. For a weekly or a monthly magazine, that means in practice releasing stories on a daily basis rather than waiting for the whole edition to be dropped on the app doorstep each week or month.
It means getting readers to come back to the app edition on a regular basis, and to therefore engage with the publication more frequently.
To see this in practice in a nicely constructed environment take a look at Evo, the monthly motoring magazine from Dennis Publishing. You can see the latest stories by all topics, or group them into themes and by car brand, i.e. Jaguar or Aston Martin.
And that seems like a very sensible direction for any magazine to go in. Whether you start by releasing your articles as they are ready, or drop them in the app as an edition, you should also open up ways to view past content without having to search inside individual edition bundles.
The edition is just a wrapper, after all.
But most importantly, a reader who wishes to stick to the traditional print model and read the May edition from cover to cover, can also do just that.
And that, I think is very important. As nice a piece of engineering as the BBC news app is, I find that I spend a 10th of the time on it as I do reading an entire daily edition of The Times.
Similarly when I look at the dwell times on the digital editions published through Page Lizard, they are typically in the 20-something minutes. These are considered reads by subscribers who are immersed in and engaged with the content that is produced for them.
Engagement depth over frequency
The battle today, we are often told, is to keep people reading. Taking in a snippet of news in a headline or a tweet is not the same as understanding a piece of news with all of its consequences and ramifications. If the reader is to continue to see the value in their consumer or professional publication, we have to measure the engagement depth, not just the frequency.
Potentially the continuous publishing model can free long-term magazines like weeklies and monthlies from the constraints of long deadlines and allow them to become more active servants or their readers. Page Lizard is in the process of re-building its publishing apps to allow all publications to work along this model. We think it offers the best of the old and the new.
But let us hope that in shifting to a continuous publishing model there will still be something to celebrate when the actual issue is released, and that readers will devote similar amounts of attention to it as they have done so historically.
As The Times might argue – speed is not the most important criteria by which information should be judged. Its what you say that matters most.