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The road from print to digital: Reflections on seven years as Head of Digital at The Times and The Sunday Times

How to reflect on seven years as head of digital at The Times and The Sunday Times? Start at the beginning is always good advice, but also acknowledges the distance we – and I – have travelled.

The instructions when I was given the job in November 2013 were very clear. “Fix the tablet,” I was told. 

Our tablet app, which had been launched to great acclaim in 2010 when the iPad was released, had recently been rebuilt and it had not been a great success. 

That’s an understatement. On the day it was relaunched in February 2013, the problems being experienced by users – the worst of which was an extreme overheating of their device – led to more than 30,000 calls to our customer helpline in a single day. 

By the time I took over as head of digital nine months later, the initial crisis had passed but there were still problems with the app. Headlines and pictures looked out of kilter; we would often be left with a single lonely word on a page; picture credits had absurdly large capital letters.

With all the confidence of a print editor with more than 15 years of experience in newspapers – but, crucially, almost none in digital – I thought, “This shouldn’t be too difficult. I’ll just sit with the production team and sort it out.”

I spent a night with the production editor, who not only worked a godforsaken 6pm until 2am shift, but now had a boss at her shoulder who was full of ideas. We sat and went through the changes that I, as an editor and regular consumer of our tablet edition, wanted to make. 

It soon became clear that I was dealing with something very different from print. The headlines were written to work on three different device sizes, so of course they didn’t always look perfect on the one I was looking at; the pictures were autosized by an algorithm; the picture credits were hardcoded, and frankly redoing that work was not a priority; the templates only allowed us to do this, not that. Everything was more complicated than it at first appeared. 

I certainly didn’t give up trying to improve the tablet after that first experience but I realised very quickly that it wouldn’t happen quickly and that many different requirements would be competing for our developers’ time.

And so began the learning experience that has characterised the seven years I’ve been in this job, which have been by far the most challenging and stimulating of my career.

That experience with the tablet was salutary: I knew then I had to learn a new way of doing things, to reprogramme myself out of my print ways, to start to think digitally. 

Alan Hunter, ex-Head of Digital, The Times and The Sunday Times

What an uplifting journey it has been and along the way I hope I’ve learnt some things that will be interesting, maybe even useful, to others.

Listen to your customers

The main lesson is listen to your customers – because they really do know what they want, especially in as mature a market as news. I realise that this is not an original insight but too often internal company dynamics and the ideas of senior people get in the way. The times we have truly listened to customers is when we have succeeded. 

A great example was our launch of a new smartphone app and website in 2016. Our existing sites and apps weren’t considered to be a priority at that time – we were all about the tablet – but I’d looked at the customer satisfaction data and our readers hated them. They weren’t just indifferent to them – they actively disliked them.

It’s not surprising: they were a jumble of poorly done breaking news mixed up with the content from the paper. Oh, and there were two websites, one each for The Times and The Sunday Times, which in most readers’ minds were one and the same publication.

Happily, it was eventually accepted that this was a crazy situation and we worked with Ideo, a design thinking agency who had grown out of the famous d school at Stanford University (I later attended an excellent design thinking bootcamp there), to reimagine them.

The idea we came up after an intensive period of listening to users was familiar and yet radical. We proposed that we leave breaking news to others and instead focus on providing finite and finishable editions for readers at set times of the day. We wouldn’t tell them everything that was happening but we would tell them what was important. 

A lot of observers thought we were just copying a print model. But no, this was driven by our digital readers.

They told us they didn’t check the news as often as we as journalists do. I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise: unlike journalists most people don’t have screens around their home or office permanently tuned to TV news channels, nor do they opt for notifications from gazillions of news providers (they actually said they found the ones they did get a bit annoying), or sign up for many dozens of news emails. Mostly they checked the news once or twice a day and then got on with their lives.

They also told us that it’s the authority of our reporting that people come for, not the speed at which we can get it out. We asked readers if they’d like us to be quick or right? They all said right.

The results after the launch of the resulting products were an increasing frequency of visits – even though we were updating less often – and increased engagement. Visitors to the smartphone app, whose daily usage tripled, read four times as many articles as before.

The importance of data

There are many ways of listening to your readers and the one that I think is still yet to be fully utilised is data. I find it astonishing that some journalists remain reluctant to embrace all it can offer because, after all, the data is your readers. We know in far, far greater detail and perhaps really for the first time what our subscribers and potential subscribers want from us.

I can see why this is unsettling. In print, there were three data points. Daily or weekly sales; ad revenue; and, most important of all, is the editor happy? I’m joking but really, what happy days those were when these were the only things you had to think about. 

Now, for every one of the 200 articles we publish a day we measure unique visitors, page views, dwell time, comments, shares, saves, referrers, and the demographic details of readers. And at The Times my team worked with our data scientists to introduce bespoke proprietary indices within our award-winning Inca analytics platform that judge whether a particular article has succeeded for engagement in terms of subscribers, guests, women, international readers, young readers, less engaged subscribers and so on. 

Now these have evolved into algorithms that suggest whether to move an article up or down the edition, whether to think about changing its headline, whether the content doesn’t match the promise of the sell. 

This real-time data, coupled with the detailed (and award-winningContent Review we conducted a couple of years ago, means we can now say with a high level of confidence that we know what type and amount of content works best for digital news subscriptions. This has the potential rapidly to accelerate the growth of The Times and The Sunday Times in the next few years.

For this, further cultural change is required and I think this remains the most difficult thing for legacy news brands. 

In our case we had 200 years of history pulling us towards print. And compared with digital, print is a very simple business indeed, and one whose basic structures haven’t changed for decades, centuries even.

Junior staff are pivotal in driving new ideas

Digital news is different and challenging to those structures. Not least because in very hierarchical newsrooms often the youngest, most junior people have the best ideas. It is a feature of our age that not only do junior staff often think they know more than their superiors – that’s not new – this time they really do.

This is a huge challenge, especially when newsrooms have typically adopted very strong command-and-control models.

I often saw my job as explaining to senior people why their idea was perhaps, er, suboptimal, why they should trust the 25-year-old in the social team more than what their contact told them at some high-powered lunch, why their brilliant new product feature was actually technically impossible. Unsurprisingly this wasn’t always easy.

But we made a lot of progress along the way. And a lot of it was down to my team. When I look back at my career at The Times the thing I am most proud of is the digital strategy and development team I built up.

Its aim was to provide the specialist skills – in social, newsletters, community journalism, video, audio, digital storytellingdata journalism, digital strategy – that the newsroom didn’t have. 

We took the view that it is unrealistic to expect all our outstanding story-getters to switch quickly to a digital mindset and to have the skills to tell stories differently. But pair them with a specialist and you can work wonders. 

It produced great work – such as when our environment editor worked with our data team to expose the toxic levels of air pollution around Britain’s primary schools. This led directly to a change in UK government policy.

Bringing new skills to the newsroom

We have also brought new skills into the newsroom: among my team are developers, a post-doctoral physicist, a former civil servant with a degree in robotics and a former employee of a trade union.

Many of them are not, as I have been told before, “journalists” in the traditional sense. But they bring diverse skills that legacy newsrooms must embrace in order to survive.

Managing them was easy once I realised I would have to discard almost everything I’d learnt about management in the print newsroom. The command-and-control structure just doesn’t work across such a wide range of specialist skills and with such a huge array of output. One person cannot possibly keep on top of every video, every social post, every newsletter, every podcast, every story on the website and apps, every data investigation, every interactive, every bit of audience work in the same way as they can in a print newspaper. 

Instead I opted to pursue a policy of radical delegation with my team. I told them that we put a lot of effort into our hiring process so I knew we’d always employ good people. And now – within a framework of team goals – I was leaving them to get on with it. Obviously I’d get periodic reports of how they were tracking against targets but mostly my message was: “Do what you need to do, but rest assured that if you get into trouble you can come to me and I’ll sort it out.” 

The good thing is that mostly I had few issues to sort out and this approach produced great work from an empowered team. I heartily recommend this course of action. It’s one of the best things I’ve learnt in the past decade.

Between us we launched new products – some that worked brilliantly, like Red Box, our politics strand based on a daily newsletter; some that didn’t, like Times Weekly, an international edition that attracted a lot of trialists but not enough paying subscribers. 

We built not one but two CMSs – Deck for producing newsletters and interactives, and Edition Builder for web and app curation. We devised and ran 24 different training sessions for the newsrooms whose cumulative attendance ran into the thousands (my favourite was “Why everything is not a podcast” but that’s another story). 

Less is more…and being humble

We set up an audience team, who found that the less we published the more engagement we got from readers, and a data and digital storytelling team, who revolutionised the way we approach our stories on web and apps. We ran hackdays to unearth new talent, as well as winning “the World Cup of news hackdays”. 

We pioneered using Slack in the newsroom … “That’s no big deal because everyone uses it,” I hear you say. Well, it was in 2013. 

We worked with machine learning specialists to develop fact-checking and style book checking tools.

But most of all I’ve learnt that thinking digitally is about being humble in the face of your users and your data; it’s about collaboration; it’s about challenging the status quo; it’s about embracing “I wonder if…” even if that takes you somewhere you’d never thought of; it’s about listening and learning. 

And the tablet? It’s no longer our “hero product”, having long ago been eclipsed by the smartphone app. And it’s soon to have a significant upgrade as we move to a universal app, which will meet the customers’ desire to find “the same Times everywhere I look at it” and give them faster access to all the work the teams across the business are working on. 

But that’s a story that someone else will have to tell.

To everyone who has helped me along the way – and there’s too many to mention by name for fear of leaving someone out – thank you for the inspiration, the ideas and the camaraderie.

Alan Hunter, ex-Head of Digital at The Times and The Sunday Times

Re-published with kind permission of Alan Hunter. The original article can be found on LinkedIn. Alan can be contacted at alanhhunter@gmail.com or via his LinkedIn profile.