International online audience is the big challenge, says Times editor

The Times' biggest challenge in coming years will be to expand its online audience globally — particularly in India, editor Robert Thomson told a Press Gazette Breakfast with the Editor event on Tuesday.

The Times now has two staff correspondents in India, and Thomson expects Times Online's Indian readership to be larger than its UK readership within "a couple of years".

"There'll be hand-to-hand combat with the FT and the Telegraph in Britain for many years to come, but the greatest growth opportunity will be in understanding that international audience," Thomson said.

In the past year, the Times Online audience has increased 250 per cent to nine million unique users per month, including nearly four million in the United States, he said.

"There have never been more readers of Times journalism since the paper was founded in 1785. I would not be surprised, but disappointed, if we didn't have several million regular users from India within a couple of years."

India has already shot from 15th to fifth in the list of countries that Times Online draws the most readers from, and Thomson expects further growth based on projections showing accelerating broadband penetration on the subcontinent. Within four years, there could be as many as 25 million broadband connections in India, up from 450,000 today, Thomson said.

"We will suddenly find in six or eight months' time — but not as long as two years' time — that there is a surge in Indian interest in what we do," he said.

"We have to understand, without hiring many more journalists, how you can repackage content that serves the needs of a high-end Indian user," he said.

Thomson said his international audience would read The Times selectively, primarily for its coverage of foreign policy, global business and cricket. The quality of his journalists' writing, Thomson said, would set The Times apart from American papers with similarly global aspirations.

"It is something that sets the best of British journalism apart from US journalism, having seen US journalism up close in New York, and does give us a comparative advantage," he said.

Thomson said papers' printed editions would need to complement their online offerings and take into account that commuters around the world are better informed than ever before.

"To presume that they are ignorant of the internet is to publish a suicide note," he said.

But shifting to the compact format, Thomson argued, was about more than appealing to commuters — the smaller size had made The Times more appealing to younger audiences, which had found the previous broadsheet design daunting and uninviting.

Thomson believed The Times did not have a content problem before the paper changed shape. "We had a fundamental image problem and I'd like to think that we made some small improvements in content, but what you need is a big change in attitude to the paper."

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