A retrospective on five years of digital editions

7 May 2021

The 30th of March 2021 marked five years since the launch of The Times and Sunday Times 'digital editions'. A project that took two years from the initial concepts, to a final launch.

Now, 1500 editions later, not much has changed of the original. Though it was initially received with skepticism in bundling publish times and generally bringing a newspaper's then-tablet workflow to the web, it has at least been influential on several other publishers since.

  • In 2019, the i launched "three daily editions" on its apps, alongside a livelier breaking news operation.
  • The Guardian recently relaunched their paper tablet app as 'Guardian Daily1', supporting readers wanting to read "coverage at a slower pace".
  • MailPlus, the slightly-weird paid newspaper-made-digital version of the Daily Mail (not to be confused with dailymail.co.uk 🤦‍♂️), have a homepage that looks remarkably similar to The Times, and has stories updated at set times of the day, with the update time called out specifically in the first paragraph.

But even looking past legacy publishers with the kind of content scale that would permit editions, the product themes (timeliness, bundles, and finishability) are behind the rise of many new faces.

Daily deliveries like The Morning Brew briefing, the bulleted 'why it matters' summaries of Axios, the timely written prose of the Quartz homepage, and the growing array of newsletters on Substack that cover news at a slower pace, in a more digestible manner, all exhibit parts of these three components.

Five years on though, the industry is still scratching the surface of what an edition product might look like. Instead of working on the job an edition does for a reader, we are once again focused on what job a digital offering does for the journalists and editors that produce it.

We are not our readers.

The story of editions outside of the digital-first startups can be told as an allegory of the fundamental disconnect between newsrooms and the concept of news product that seems to constantly evade them.

In technology roles you are encouraged to take the time to look back, to retrospectively analyse your successes and failures to learn from them, something that there is rarely the opportunity to do in editorial given the relentless pace. Five years after I helped build it, and as many of that team depart The Times and Sunday Times I think editions as a concept deserves a retro.

So I thought I would write about why I think editions done well are still a compelling product, and then how we continue to get them wrong.

What do I mean by editions?

There are three concepts that I think go into building editions, and they align reasonably well with the concept of RFV as a business metric. Recency, frequency, and value (as in recency of visit, regularity of visit, and length of visit) are common metrics that news providers might use to determine their performance amongst readers. Generally if you can bring people in, give them reasons to come back, and serve them well during the time they are with you, you have a happy reader.

One of the driving forces behind this behaviour, and something that editions explicitly encourage is creating habit. A bundle of high quality, curated, and timely content, produced regularly, are excellent foundations on which to build a habitual, valuable audience.

Loops

This works best if you can provide a platform that marries this bundling with other features that help build further habit. As Nir Eyal describes in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, you want to build loops that the user is prompted to come back to, however you may create or deliver that prompt, and then provide value and opportunities to trigger further prompts in the future.

These loops are a part of why that slim proportion of readers that engage in comments are so much more likely to return: they typically read more content, and spend more time reading it, than those that do not engage. Leaving a comment is an 'investment' as Eyal describes it in the last part of the hook. A comment may also, depending on your capabilities, provide the first part of the hook, the trigger ("Matt liked your comment", "Matt replied to your comment" as an email notification or otherwise). Creating touchpoints for readers to engage in ways that permit you to bring them back are gold.

So how does an edition relate to a comment?

It's in the product's ability to create that reader investment, and initial trigger for them to return. With a live news site, you could allow readers to follow topics (like My FT), or authors (like... er... My FT). Both of these up front investments likely result in notifications (a trigger), but one that could potentially come at any time, with an unknown volume.2

An edition model, done well, enables the ultimate end-goal in planning: an open newsroom with your readers, telling them what you are producing and when they can expect it. They can sign up to a known and predictable quantity and timing of editions, with the potential for them to engage further in highlighting coverage they want more of in coming editions.

Digital technologies allow the same kinds of notification for individual stories or storylines, and they provide regular touchpoints (the edition publish times) to re-engage readers to subscribe to the next touch point, or the one after that.

An enforced limit

🤔

The other aspect of editions I think a lot of is 'finishability', described as creating a valuable visit for the reader through enabling them to see—though perhaps not meet—the finish line.

It would be very difficult for you to 'complete' the digital product of The Guardian today. You'd need to find every story The Guardian has written, quickly check it out and determine whether you wanted to read it or not, then potentially read it. This is the power of the alternative in Guardian Daily. It's a front-to-back bundle of editorially curated items, and once you've finished browsing through them you're done. Your trust is in the publisher to curate what is important for you to see, which is a service you pay for just as much as the journalism itself.

This idea of 'finishability' is fundamental to the success of sites like Axios, which trades in both breaking news and detailed analysis, but lets no story lose the reader's attention through a succinct summary delivered in bullet points.3 Brevity is crucial.

The Guardian, years ago now, used audience data to cut their output by a third. As described by Chris Moran in this exceedingly worthwhile interview with Emily Bell, the problem presented by the internet was a combination of the feeling of unlimited space, whilst still being limited by opportunities for promotion. A homepage, or a social feed, or a newsletter can only display so many possible items for consumption. Why not limit yourself to a much more succinct service through design once again?

Editions, at their best, should attempt to reintroduce the limitation of print space. They should make editors acutely aware of the attention commitment they are asking of the reader, and of the reader's potential need at the time. Journalists have a very odd fascination for the idea that more stories, and more choices, are always better than less. We need to remember that we are not our audience, and their needs at any time are very different from ours.

Attention in an article is an important metric, but when applied to the reader's entire visit it is their quality of attention we should strive for: how quickly can you get a reader into a value-providing action such as reading an article or watching a video. Time spent hunting is time they could afford to save.

Of course there is a lot more that is possible: in learning more about habits and interests of readers you could deliver them partially or entirely custom bundles, or more effectively A:B test structure and content than it may be possible to do in a more real-time traditional digital news product.

Timeliness

Editions rebundle articles. This is a step back from the course of the internet where the article has become the atomic unit of consumption. When it was impossible in a printed world to buy an individual article, in the digital domain you likely land on an article page directly when searching for news, and may never see the overall package.

This is fine for flyby consumers, but in publishers with membership models the homepage, and other elements of the digital offering, have increased value. Readers may visit directly and use it to skim your reporting, or to get a feel for what your editorial focus is.

Homepages today are (almost all) live news wires, with latest news interspersed with high-performing features and older articles. Repeat visitors over the course of the day (themselves rare, admittedly) may see articles they have already read sitting in the page, in a different position or with a different headline5.

Editions offer the opportunity in rebundling articles to create periodic updates to your homepage or homepage-like features (such as a specific 'edition' page). Your predictable updates provide opportunities for nudges and notifications at known times for your audience.

And, should it be useful to your content strategy, editions can help to move newsrooms away from the always-breaking news agenda that is endemic of the transition to the internet. A rush to publish first means a multitude of updates, work passing between hands, and readers not knowing the difference between your outlets and the dozens of others carrying the same stories at the same frenzied pace. National broadcasters and cable networks will always cover breaking news, so bring your expertise and angle when it's ready in the next edition.

The state of editions

Moving on from the thematic elements of editions to the practicalities of introducing them to readers, it's no surprise to see that in practice little of the potential is realised for readers.

The Times, MailPlus and the i all intersperse new stories with old, they all have long scrolling homepages based on print sections rather than reader need. None meaningfully personalise or engage further than comments or social pushes, and none offer to notify me about editions, leaving me to learn for myself when the next update is by deciphering unloved page furniture.

The Times has even recently started to completely break with the concept, starting rolling live news coverage on their homepage, something which has become increasingly common as time has gone on. Journalists are working rigorously to serve themselves, and the social and search giants, rather than their loyal paying customers, or carving any kind of niche provision.

The editions model is the clearest indication of the product/journalism divide I think there has been. In a world of print, publishers competed on content, geographical monopolies aside. In a global digital world, attention is more sought after than ever, and content is most commonly combined with some valued delivery mechanism to provide the best experience. This could be a movie streamed at adaptive resolutions straight to your smart TV app, or a song from a playlist constructed from your listening habits to introduce you to new artists.

In our world of journalism it could equally be an edition. Some form of the packaging of journalism that isn't atomic, isn't gamed for search, and doesn't purely rely on the levers of social networks. A product in its own right that delivers a unique service for readers4.

That is where we could be.


  1. The GitHub code repository for this app is even called 'editions', although it was originally called Mallard, which is super cute 🦆.
  2. Speaking of volume of stories, Feedbin, Feedly and other RSS readers do this really nicely by showing you the number of stories you are likely to receive by subscribing to any one feed. eg. one article per month, or twelve articles per day. Don't tell me that information wouldn't help you make a better decision as to what to spend your time with.
  3. Axios also have this lovable, almost-pointless Go deeper clickthrough for stories on their list pages that calculates the minutes to read. More often that not, that time reads (<3 minutes).
  4. I feel it's worth nothing that this might not, and probably should not be the only product that you offer to readers as part of your service (unless you are really committed to this specific branch of readers), but increasingly could be something that an editor produces from your coverage, or is almost entirely automated. Publishers that jump into editions one day, and out of them the other, do nobody a good service. How on earth are your readers supposed to know what's in your head?