So how do these sites measure up against the existing online news offerings?
The first things that strikes you about the Times site in particular is the fact that it bears a much stronger visual relationship to its offline cousin than the existing Times Online. The colour palette above the fold is extremely sober giving the site an authoritative and serious look. The Sunday Times, in contrast, is much more image-led reflecting the lighter nature of its content.
Both sites offer simple navigation with a pared down primary navigation bar. Ajax is used cleverly to allow readers to drill down into other sections of the site, select the top features or toggle between article options. Columnists are particularly to the fore as would be expected, as they are the basis for most of the newspapers’ truly unique content.
However, its clear that News International’s main strategy for differentiation can be summed up in one word – interactivity. Rich media such as video content is used to bring news stories and columns to life, broadcast celebrity ‘tips’ and stream live interviews. And journalists emerge from the shadows to help readers attain a greater depth of understanding – hosting forums and live debates on the most topical stories.
So is it enough for users to want to pay £1 per day or £2 per week to access the content? Well, that depends on how truly loyal the Times’ online readers prove to be, how simple the payment process is from the user perspective and how well the editorial team can leverage the power of the News International empire to create truly unique and compelling content.
A recent poll conducted by Entertainment Media Research for Wiggin, a media law firm, suggested that 9% of Times Online readers would be willing to pay for online access. But 9% of what? The Times commands over 20m monthly online users and if 9% of those were prepared to fork out £2 a week, James Harding, The Times Editor, would be a very happy man. However, I’d hazard a guess that the Times team would be happy with a regular subscriber base in the 200,000 to 250,000 range.
The fact is, nobody knows how many people are prepared to pay for the convenience of online news from their favourite source rather than searching it out elsewhere on the web. That’s why even those publications that have nailed their colours to the free access mast will be watching this launch with intense interest.