The 'Interactive' Times of London: Is It?

By: Steve Outing

My friends in the UK tell me that Rupert Murdoch's News International made a big splash when putting the Times and Sunday Times of London on the World Wide Web on New Year's Day. That's significant news, so I took a look at The Times Internet Edition.

First, let's note that this is not the Times' first online venture. The papers also have a presence on Delphi UK, though it operates as a text-only service. (At some point the Delphi text-based service will cease to exist, but Delphi officials say they are not ready to announce a timetable.) Now, as with nearly every other newspaper publisher with online aspirations, The Times has moved to the Web as well.

The Times sites -- the daily and Sunday Times are separate in look and feel -- is very nicely designed. The Times site makes minimal use of big graphics to facilitate speedy loading of pages; the Sunday Times has a more graphics-intensive interface. For the daily Times, sections of content are divided up into easy-to-navigate areas, with each sporting a file-folder-like tab on the left side of most pages, color-coded to the section. For example, click on the pink tag and you'll get the British News section, which has a pink background. Along the right side of most pages is a vertical area to accommodate advertising messages. The site appears to have been produced by some talented graphic designers.

There is an extensive classified ad area, with search capabilities. But the ads are strictly text, and I found its layout clumsy to navigate. The site is just out of the starting blocks, so it's still a little rough around the edges. Do a search of the classified ad datatbase, for example, and the resulting list of ads is split up into groups of 12, requiring you to click more times than is necessary.

There is an online crossword puzzle, similar to that of Philadelphia Online. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to load; many crossword fans will run and grab a copy of the print edition rather than tolerate long redraws every time they enter an answer (unless they have an ISDN line or fast cable connection).

A nice touch spotted on a news summary page is a graphic clock showing the local time in London at the moment you clicked to receive the page. And there's an area called "Personal Times," which allows you to select which sections of the newspaper you would like to view on a regular basis, and even specify keywords that when found in a story will turn up on your personal page. Configure the page and save the resulting page output as a bookmark in your Web browser, and you'll always have your "personalized" onine newspaper handy.

What most strikes me about the Times site is that it is, in effect, a digital translation of the newspapers themselves -- with some nice "gee whiz" online features tossed in. The entire contents of the newspapers is online; The Times gives readers a choice of reading its news content in printed form or digitally on the Web. Of course, on the Web, viewing it is free -- at least for now.

The Times Internet Edition is going to be of most interest to those outside of the papers' circulation area: foreigners interested in keeping up with UK news, British business people traveling outside the country, etc.

The service is not fully built out yet, and some features are not operational, such as Weather and TV listings, which are under a category called "Interactive Times" (as is the Personal Times feature). As impressed as I am with the overall Times site, I'm not sure that Interactive is the right word to describe the service. "Interactive" features -- discussion forums, chat rooms, online surveys -- are not to be found yet, though there is a mailto: link for sending letters to the editor. It's the person-to-person component of the service that's missing at this date.

This is not meant to deride a newspaper publisher putting the full contents of its print editions online. While some industry insiders criticize this approach as merely "shovelware," it is a necessary component of many a newspaper online service. Managers at sites that do not carry full news content from the print edition typically report that consumers expect to find the full newspaper online, and complain when it's not.

I fully expect the Times' Web site to evolve and become more than a computerized presentation of the newspaper. It's off to a great start, and over recent days I've noticed new features appearing. What's more surprising is a service like the Electronic Telegraph, the Web service of the Times' cross-town rival, The Telegraph, that's been operational since November 1994. ET is essentially a digital form of the print newspaper, sans interactivity in the true sense of that word.

ET has received much praise; the site is nicely designed and a wonderful service for people interested in keeping up with events in the UK. But it's a one-to-many medium just like the printed Telegraph, and I find that troubling because the service does not take advantage of the many-to-many communication made possible by the Internet.

The Times/Sunday Times text-based service on Delphi features online surveys, where visitors can answer a question, send in their response, and see an instant tabulation of all the responses received so far -- including their own -- instantly. The Times on Delphi also has discussion forums where Times personnel participate. Those features fit the definition of "interactive" -- but interactivity is a scary concept for some print publishers operating in the online world.

My advice to publishers: By all means, if you have the resources, put your entire publication's content online -- adding bells and whistles like personalized editions and archive searching. But don't forget what online is all about: many to many communication.

Best Online Newspaper Services Competition

Please don't forget to nominate your own company or another for Editor & Publisher/The Kelsey Group's 1996 Best Online Newspaper Services Competition. The nomination form is on the Web at Deadline for nominations is January 24, 1996. Winners will be announced at the Interactive Newspapers conference in San Francisco on February 24, 1996.

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