Edward Roussel, Head of Digital, The Times and the Sunday Times
Edward joined The Times and the Sunday Times in May 2021 as Head of Digital. He has unashamedly ambitious goals for The Times as a world-beating digital brand. That includes the quality of the journalism and of the consumer experience across all devices. We spoke with Edward about his plans to change the way the Times commissions stories with a focus on three trends: visual journalism, live coverage and carefully thought-through distribution.
Edward, since we last met in April 2021, a few things have changed to say the least. You are now Head of Digital at The Times and the Sunday Times.
I moved back to London, my home city ,in May, to be head of digital for the Times and the Sunday Times, which is very exciting. I think The Times is one of the great brands for journalism in the English language. And my goal is to make it a fantastic brand digitally so that the quality of the journalism and the quality of the consumer experiences on different devices feels great. That’s the goal.
Sounds great. We hear you’ve started out with a project that aims to achieve higher quality through the way you commission your stories. Can you tell us more about this new project?
That’s absolutely right. The first thing I started to look at is how we commission stories. Great news companies create great journalism and the critical point for that is that point of inception when a story is being conceived. I think the big change that is underway now is being able to conceive of stories at the point of inception, at the point of commissioning, and really focusing on three trends. Obviously, we want stories that are factual, that are well-edited, and well-written, but we also want stories to achieve at least three other digital goals.
The first is visual journalism so that they are visually appealing in terms of the quality of graphics and video and photography.
The second is live coverage. I think it’s a real skillset to be able to tell dramatic unfolding news stories, for example the fall of Kabul, in a live way.
The third trend that we need to get into is what you could consider to be the fragmentation of the Internet; people’s attention span being fragmented across a number of different news outlets. I mean by that Google, Google search, Google Discover, Google Showcase, Facebook, Facebook app, Facebook, Instagram. So there is a whole gamut of search and social because increasingly that’s where the news journey begins. We’re putting that front and centre of our commissioning process and begin to envisage at the point of conception, how those stories will be distributed not only on our own platforms, but also across the wider ecosystem of the Internet.
That sounds like a lot of skilled people going to work. New digital visuals, live storytelling and a very specific distribution – do you plan to hire more people?
Yes, I do. Our newsroom is growing, I’m very pleased to say. We’re increasing our resources and we’re increasing our headcount in particular around digital storytelling. That means skills, such as running a large graphics team and seeing how we can do an even better job and on video and photography. It also includes product design skills. There’s a whole gamut of new skills that we’re hiring as we make a net investment in our newsroom.
Going back to the three trends you are going to focus on in your storytelling, what does that mean for your focus on visual journalism?
I think the first point is that the world of media is becoming more visual, whether we like it or not, it’s just the way the world is headed. Just look at Instagram; a billion users a month, of which half come every single day. So, five hundred million people go to Instagram every single day. And the same is true for other services, TikTok, Snapchat and the like. The world of media is becoming more visual, particularly for younger demographics. I think what we must do is think about what that means for us and our Brands. We’re not TikTok, we’re not Snapchat, we’re not Instagram, but the Times. Nonetheless, the visual appeal of stories is becoming incredibly important. People want very well-crafted stories which are well written, well edited and factual. They also want them to be accompanied by compelling visual elements. For us that’s being excellent in graphics, it’s being excellent in video, and it’s being excellent with photography, and the interplay between those different elements. That’s something that we are now working really hard at with our new commissioning structure. We review our daily digital outputs four times a day in a structured way, and we look at all our main stories through that prism: Have we got the right combination of really well written words and compelling visuals?
On top of that, you are going to focus also on the live coverage. Can you give us an example of events or the way you plan to choose the events to cover live?
First of all, we’re not Twitter, right? We’re not in the business of covering a huge number of events. On the other hand, there are certain events that are incredibly important to our readers and we have to keep them up to date with what’s happening in real time.
An example of that could be the recent fall of Kabul, where obviously there’s also been a very strong British presence. A dramatic story of that kind, which is playing out in a matter of days and hours, needs to be told in a different way from other stories. It’s going to require you to tell an unfolding news story in a way that feels structured, organized, exciting, terrifying, but really captures the nature of the story. It means managing information coming in hour by hour, day by day and capturing that trauma. And I think that there’s real skill in how you deploy two things in particular:
- First of all, how you deploy notifications and alerts. What is the role of a notification and updating people on that story? How do you provide not just a commodity notification, but hard to provide context, valuable information and education?
- The second part of it is aggregating elements of the story in a single template so that the reader can very quickly capture a sense of what’s happening, but also can skip to different perspectives. That might be a very compelling video shot by the people in Kabul. It might be a compelling timeline. There might be a compelling series of photographs. There might be some well written text from a reporter who’s there on the ground. And there’s a real skill, I think, in the modern world when it comes to bringing those disparate elements together in a way that feels compelling, urgent, but also very well narrated.
How would you distribute this kind of story?
Different stories lend themselves to different platforms. I think a story like Kabul is a highly visual story in the modern era with all the people with cameras on the ground and UGC radio. The question is about being able to anticipate the following at the point of inception
- What kind of stories do you want to distribute on social networks as you do not have to distribute all your stories on social networks. Which stories best represent your brand?
- Secondly, being mindful that how you tell that story will be different on, say, Twitter than it will be on Instagram you need to have those discussions up front about how you’re going to tell the stories on each platform in a way that represents your brand, but also utilizes the best of each platform.
Our last question: what would you wish for if the media fairy granted you one wish?
What a wonderful thought. Thank you for making the offer. I assume it’s an offer. You know there’s a real shortage of highly skilled people in the digital media sector. Which is great news if you work in the digital sector, by the way. Where we’re feeling the pain most is probably design and engineering. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d probably ask for five outstanding designers and 10 outstanding engineers.
Edward, thank you very much for your insights and for your time.
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