MEDIA ANALYSIS: The Times Online gets interactive

The Times Online has relaunched, with a refreshed look and greater capacity for user-generated and multimedia content. Hannah Marriott speaks to its editorial team, and asks PR professionals what they want from the site.

The Times has lavished more than £10m on the design, IT, editorial and marketing of its website, which relaunched earlier this month.

Even before the revamp, the site pulled in more than a million monthly users. Now - after what executive editor Parminder Bahra describes as a ­redesign that left ‘no stone unturned' - it is hoping to attract even more.

Bahra says: ‘ has been made as easy as possible to read and navigate. It was more difficult to incorporate audio and visual content using the old format, so the redesign has ensured it is a platform for all the exciting things the web can offer.'

The developments will be monitored closely by PR practitioners, many of whom - such as Virgin Trains director of comms Arthur Leathley, himself a former Times journalist - believe the newspaper's online offering is only rivalled in terms of quality by that of The Guardian.

‘Worth the wait'
Most users will surely welcome the changes. Cohn & Wolfe associate director Cat Jennings says: ‘The Times Online hadn't been revamped since 2000, so it was time for an overhaul. It was worth the wait, as the new layout is well thought out and much more user-friendly overall.'

Leathley, however, says that while it looks ‘fresh', the enormous amount of information on the site can be overwhelming.

New features include Cool in Your Code, comprising video footage of shops, bars, property and clubs in certain London areas, and Your World, an inter­active travel portal where users can post their tips and thoughts about destinations.

Most of the site's content is integrated with that of the newspaper, and there is scope for instant expert analysis, podcasts and users' opinions on all of the main paper's stories and comment pieces.

These comment articles include blogs from The Times, Times Online and Sunday Times writers such as Alpha Mummy, who Bahra describes as ‘a resource, a tool and a friend' to working mothers. He says the blogs are just one way in which The Times Online is trying to instil ‘a sense of community' in its users.

Communities editor Tom Whitwell oversees all blogs, moderating people's comments by checking for libel, obscenities and repetitions, and ensuring that readers' questions and thoughts are responded to. ‘We are trying to encourage a two-way conversation - more of a debate and less of a platform for columnists to merely say what they think,' he says.

But user-generated content is, Whitwell says, a learning process: ‘Some people are a bit hesitant to comment in the same area as Times journalists, which we find odd, as we are really interested to hear readers' views.'

Bahra adds that there is no problem with PR executives contributing to user-generated content. ‘Anyone is welcome to comment - as long as those comments are there to stimulate the debate and are not blatant commercial puff,' he says.

Bloggers can, of course, be contacted by PR professionals (just as PROs would contact a traditional print journalist). However, Bahra suggests it would be particularly interesting to hear from PR executives whose clients have relevant ‘web-oriented content' that bloggers might want to link to.

The best time to get in touch, says Whitwell, is mid-week at noon, as the busiest times for uploading content are at the beginning and end of the week. Other convenient times are early morning and late afternoon, with section editors the best initial points of contact (see below).

Jo Sheldon, director of Edelman's ‘strategic media unit', says the agency's clients are keen to win coverage on newspaper websites. ‘Clients are not interested in getting onto sites that are merely a poor man's version of a newspaper, but they are very interested when online content is an extension of, or discussion about, a story that has appeared in the paper,' he explains.

A holistic approach
Integration is the prime aim of The Times Online. Last week, for instance, the newspaper ran a section dedicated to China. Print features included a free ‘Learn Mandarin' CD, while online content included ‘Learn Mandarin' podcasts and interactive Chinese-themed puzzles.

Bahra urges PR professionals to ‘think about the web' when targeting The Times Online. ‘There is no point in doubling up on what's already happening in the paper,' he says.

‘The focus should be on "augmenting" what you are doing to win traditional print coverage with the addition of ­interactive elements and audio and visual content.'

He recommends approaching Times staff in a similarly holistic way. This means mentioning any online ideas when talking to The Times and Sunday Times print journalists, who work closely with the online team, and calling both print and online staff with story ideas for maximum reach.

What is more, Whitwell says the audience for additional online content is ‘broader than you might think'. He cites recently uploaded video footage of a hairstyle being created in a branch of Topshop, which was viewed by almost 20,000 people.

It all suggests that PR practitioners who quickly get to know the new-look Times Online will have a powerful news hub at their fingertips.

The Times Online: who to contact

Executive editor, Parminder Bahra T 020 7782 5651; Editor-in-chief, Anne Spackman; Editor, Brigid Callaghan; Communities editor, Tom Whitwell; Arts and entertainment editor, Simon Crerar T 020 7782 7610; Property editor, Lucia Adams T 020 7782 5460 Associate editor, Hector Arthur T 020 7782 5104 Lifestyle and women's editor, Jennifer Howze T 020 7782 5629 Travel editor, Steve Keenan T 020 7782 5936 Multimedia editor, Matt Walsh T 020 7782 5561 Newsdesk assistant, Mationesa Shoniwa T 020 7782 7201.


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