Paying for The Times: my very own obstacle course

An American friend of mine, standing once at the entrance to a restaurant which seemed to have no interest in seating him, said: “This is the only thing I don’t like about this country. Here I am, trying to give people my money. Do they want it? No.”

I found myself in a similar position today trying to pay an online subscription to The Times and Sunday Times. I’m fond of The Times (disclosure: I worked there for many years) and while I have doubts about the particular paywall scheme they’ve begun, experiments in charging are good. If this kind of thing isn’t tried, we won’t know. And we don’t know if other business models will keep good journalism going.

A few weeks ago, I was infuriated by the new site’s habit of dropping down a registration window and making you enter your details again. And again. And again. Eventually I left the site alone for a bit and the snag was fixed – but apparently not before this problem had irritated many others, including people working on the paper.

Yesterday, having missed his live appearances in London this week, I wanted to see the Q&A with author Clay Shirky. It wouldn’t load for ages and I had to go and do something else. OK I thought, maybe the site was getting heavy traffic yesterday as people used it for free on the last day before payment. I thought I’d better have a look at the Shirky interview because I’m reviewing his book. For The Times.

So I tried again today, knowing that I’d be filling in credit card details before getting anywhere. Filled in a few gaps in the form and tried to answer the security (Captcha) question at the foot by filling in the randomly generated sequence of letters. Didn’t work. After coming back three times for a fresh try, I was about to give up for good when I went back round to the front page and went into the live reader dialogue and discovered that I shouldn’t have filled in my password, but left that slot alone.

Not obvious at first sight. That worked. I’m a subscriber. Whatever this is, it isn’t frictionless.

That kind of stuff can happen to anyone, you might say, especially if you’ve ever had anything to do with online registration systems. But it points to a wider issue about established news organisations on the web. Their executives may grasp that they have to experiment and be agile in designing ways of piloting what works and what doesn’t.

But in practice this proves to be near-impossible. Each new online initiative, like a snowball rolling downhill, collects costs, more costs, marketing costs and investments in effort and prestige. As the plan gets bigger, the cost of failure gets higher.

At the same time, big companies have become big companies by getting a grip on costs. Until digital began The Great Disruption in the 1990s, newspapers had changed their editors, readers and editorial characters from time to time but their basic manufacturing and distribution pattern had remained unaltered for a couple of centuries (it just speeded up as time went on). As a result, the publishing sides of many newspaper companies became stripped-down operations outfits. Cost efficiency was everything  and the only edge on the competition. As a cost-effective print publisher, News International, owner of The Times, has few equals.

But the application of this kind of rational business logic to online can cause six kinds of havoc. If you don’t “fail early, fail often” you may not accumulate enough knowledge to avoid problems. Cut back the IT costs too far for a big online launch or fail to invest in the right team of people at the right time anything up to two years beforehand and you get the kind of snafus that I and others have been experiencing.

Small startups don’t have to worry about the problems of huge scale. But, as result, they are close to their users and can do plenty of trial and error. That’s how some small outfits on the web got big.

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