When South African editor Ray Hartley revealed nearly everything about his forthcoming newspaper The Times on his blog, he left no surprises for when the newspaper was launched in June. Two months later, his plan for an integrated and transparent newspaper appears to be working.
The new daily first made headlines before its 5 June launch when Hartley began publicising developments of the paper, including the physical organisation of the newsroom, platforms and even newspaper visuals on his blog, The Wild Frontier: Adventures in the Converged Media Jungle. For Hartley, who continues to blog almost everyday, the subsequent blogosphere hype allowed consumers to promote The Times brand without being asked.
“The community that follows blogs in South Africa is very small, but it is very influential. The level of awareness of The Times amongst advertisers and marketers is higher than for most papers because they are able to go straight to the editor’s blog to see what’s happening,” Hartley told RAP 21.
Since the launch of the print version and the simultaneous re-launch of its website <www.thetimes.co.za> which added video and podcasts, blogging at The Times has extended beyond the editor himself, and a number of staff members are now contributing online as well. As the editor explained, those who have seen the greatest success in building online audiences have been writers who highly engage readers in print.
“David Bullard, a long-standing columnist with The Sunday Times is our most successful blogger,” said Hartley. “ After writing a newspaper column critical of blogging, he launched his own blog on The Times website, which has had great response. We persuaded him that if he can’t beat them, he should join them. We now have two or three of the top 100 South African blogs.”
At a time when its sister publication, The Sunday Times, has been embattled in a case over holding incriminating medical records that led to the resignation of the country’s health minister, The Times’ online platforms have allowed for greater transparency.
“Like our big sister newspaper, The Sunday Times, we place a high premium on accuracy. If we make a mistake, we own up to it right away. We carry readers criticisms of the paper on our pages,” he said.
He continued: “Just recently I blogged about having to take down a blog post that was inappropriate for younger readers and included the outraged letter of a blogger so our readers can make up their own minds. The new social networking world expects transparency and I have tried to be absolutely transparent with ethical dilemmas and decisions that the paper has made. I think The Times brand has benefited enormously from its openness.”
Reader interactivity also remains central to Hartley and an area he hopes to increase. As he explained, readers recently posted photographs on The Times website after it snowed in Johannesburg for the first time in 20 years. A large selection of these photographs was then published in the print version.
“Interaction has been quite event-focused,” said Hartley. “I would like to improve the level of day-to-day interaction by introducing more vox pops in the paper and online and open up channels for reader-generated video and pictures.”
While Hartley champions the integration of such new social media, some remain weary of incorporating blogging in newsrooms and the possible impact on traditional journalism. According to The Times editor however, this fear is ungrounded.
“You have to ask yourself why critics are weary of blogging. It’s not just about blogging, it’s about a change in the organizational culture of newspapers. If you understand that a newspaper is not a lecturing instrument, but rather an engagement with an opinionated audience, you understand blogging right away.”
While Hartley and The Times have hoped to offer an advanced digital platform, they have remained cautious to protect the paper’s traditional form. The newsroom model of integrating reporters, multimedia producers and photographers into pods has seen success, acknowledging that photography and multimedia production is a specialisation, as well as is writing for a newspaper, protecting both the print and digital form.
“Most of all, readers love the tabloid size and the fact that it can be read in 20 minutes in the morning before going to work,” said Hartley. “In terms of content, our success has come from our decision to be a campaigning newspaper around the issue of South Africa’s missing and mistreated children, and we successfully campaigned for the police to take up the case of a missing boy, who was returned to his mother.”
“We have given lots of space to photographs, and have not hesitated to give a full page to a picture, if warranted,” he added. “We have worked hard to project the newspaper’s personality as a visual, smart, and fun read.”