How The Times owned Trump (without fake news)

The Times wants to grow by truth not speed

When Donald Trump chose The Times for his first UK interview, the Rupert Murdoch-owned publisher had a week to plan an elaborate marketing and editorial strategy that would see it turn one meeting into a week-long subscription-driving machine.

Yet while it has enjoyed a week leading the news agenda and turning new readers into revenue, the publisher advises news brands in the wake of a fake news epidemic that sometimes “it pays not to be first but it pays more to be right”, laying out its ambitions to grow by truth rather than speed.

The interview, conducted by Times columnist and former Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove, went live at 10pm on Sunday (15 January) evening and by Monday morning had been picked up by most major news outlets across the UK.

Gove, who was chosen by the broadsheet's editor and not Trump, turned the interview into two articles: one that focused on the president's plan to work with the UK government as well as his views on the country's Brexit from the European Union. The second piece looked at the man behind the celebrity.

It became the first high-profile exclusive interview to be published under The Times’ registered access model, a promotional tool used to woo potential subscribers. Readers wishing to access the article who weren't paid subscribers had to register their contact details. Once registered users can only access two articles per week, perfect for those looking to get the lowdown on America's 45th president. It meant the article had maximum reach while still under a version of its paywall, providing the news brand with data rather than money.

The publisher claimed it acquired the same amount of registered users in the two days following the publishing of the Trump interview that it would normally get in a week. It helped boost its subscriber growth rate in the six months from July to January 2017 by 236%, compared to the same period in 2015/16.

“We dropped our paywall for Brexit as I think a lot of people did, but not doing that for Trump has meant that we've had a huge surge in subscriptions and have enjoyed great newspaper sales for the week,” said Catherine Newman, chief marketing officer for The Times and The Sunday Times.

The Times also ran a number of editorials throughout the week that looked to unravel aspects of the interview, giving readers a glimpse of what to expect should he make good on his promise to strike a quick and fair trade deal with the UK. Newman said US politics has consistently featured in the publisher’s top articles for the week.

“The story didn’t die as is very often what happens with exclusives, but it continued to grow, continued to have momentum. We really felt that we were able to get our money’s worth,” she added.

Marketing played a huge role in this. In anticipation of its publication, the brand pushed out an eye-watering 17 tweets on Sunday in an attempt to push readers to the site. The article continued to feature on the brand's Twitter page in the days following, while radio ads were used to point listeners to the Monday paper.

“I think as publishers we struggle with the fact of how do you own an exclusive when it goes so quickly. For us it was key to make sure we could extend the reach as much as we could, so we did a lot of social work on it, promoted on the radio,” Newman said.

“It is these opportunities that we want to capitalise on, so that if people have been thinking about buying a copy of The Times, giving them reasons to come back.”

Yet despite what Newman has called a great week for newspaper sales and subscriptions, she believes the value The Times can give its readers lies deeper than just being first.

It’s why the publisher shifted its editorial strategy last year to focus on analysis and insight rather than breaking news, and why it publishes content at three points in the day instead of having a rolling news feed.

“Our readers can get a headline from anywhere but they come to us for the context the analysis and the understanding. So I think with things like Trump - yes it's great to be first. But what's more important is actually what does it mean, what's the analysis.”

“There are times when it pays not to be first but it pays more to be right, and that is actually what our audience values us for. That’s what they will pay for. Not the what but the why.”

The Times is one of a number of premium brands looking to convince readers that it is a trustworthy source of news as fake news cannibalises the value of journalism. In Newman’s eyes, it’s never been more important to reserve judgement until the last minute and offer both sides of the argument, to make sure people understand “in this age of fake news and the filter bubble” the difference between what is real and what's not.

“I think fake news has given people this idea that actually being first, being number one and being the biggest is potentially the right way to go. I just question how that gives you a sustainable business model in the future. And also the younger audience are are not going to put up with it.”

She advised publishers to “look at what they're doing to drive digital traffic”, what purpose they serve in the news ecosystem and the value they put on quality of audience versus size of audience.

“If you're wanting to sustain an advertising model then it's about relevancy of that audience it's not a pure numbers game,” she reasons.

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Jessica Goodfellow

The Drum's media reporter covering everything from publishing, TV, social media, radio and technology.

All by Jessica