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July 6, 2010

The Times website: Thanks for the free log-in, here’s five ways to make it better

By Dominic Ponsford1

Journalists should never accept a free lunch unless they are prepared to editorially criticise whoever paid for it.

So with this maxim in mind, here are a few observations on the newly paywalled Times website (thanks very much anyway News International for the free log-in):

1. There is no way to keep tabs on what is going up on the site via RSS. As I routinely monitor around 100 websites this is a big problem for me. I can’t just get a feed of the latest stories from the media section of The Times, but have to physically log-in every time – even though I have theoretically paid. So it is an inferior service to the one that is provided for free everywhere else in this respect.

2. There are no “active” bylines. One of the big selling points of the Times is its great writers: Caitlin Moran, Matthew Parris and so on. Now as a fan of Moran and Parris, I think they deserve their own landing pages where I cansee all their stuff handily indexed, find out more about them, email them, comment and so on. But if you click through to Moran or anyone else from the columnists home page you just get her latest piece and a computer-generated list of further stories by her down the side of the page.

3. No email news alerts. Similar to the RSS point, most decent news sites nowadays make your life easier by pushing relevant stories out to you via email – a great way to stay in touch when you are on the move. As far as I can see there is no facility for email news alerts yet on The Times.

4. In-story links. There aren’t any. At all. Not even to other stuff on The Times. So even though the presentation is great, it makes the content seem curiously flat. The great thing about the internet is the, well, interconnectness of it all. The refusal to link out to other sites may seem fair enough commercially, but it is a very old-fashioned view to think that The Times is the only news website readers will visit. It would be a good service to paying subscribers to point them in the direction of other useful stuff elsewhere on the web once in a while.

5. Presentation. The presentation of this website is amazing. In the ten great things about this website section, these are the things which The Times boasts about: how you can read the whole story on one page, the videos, the infographics, the different ways to view indexed content. This site is all about great presentation. But as US internet Guru Clay Shirky points out in his new book Cognitive Surplus (Observer review here)- the point of the internet is that, unlike every other medium to date, the means of consumption is also the means of production. The way to get readers staying and engaging with your site is to get them more involved in creating it, interacting with it and making it better.

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The fact that The Times now has a defined community of readers who it knows the identities of should provide great scope to create a host of new community-type functions. Little clubs even, around different aspects of the site. There’s nothing of this sort yet, but hopefully as the subscriber base grows this sort of development is in the pipeline.

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