Updated: May 10, 2020
I’ve been subscribing to The Times iPhone app. I’m not a massive fan of reading on my phone screen. Especially as I spend my working day looking at a screen. But I read The Times for years in print and I still like reading the sport, and the opinion – even though I disagree with most of it – and I just think there’s more in it and less to annoy me than in The Guardian, which I read for years before it became too smug to bear. But this isn’t a newspaper review. It’s a tale of digital failure.
My route to work doesn’t take me past a newsagent’s these days. And as a working journalist I like to be aware of what’s going on. So I bought The Times iPhone app recently to see if I’d stick with it. I did. I found I was reading more of substance than I had been doing when i was just snatching at the odd Twitter link and RSS update. I arrived at work feeling better informed. I was a digital regular. So at the end of my first month I resubscribed. And that’s when the trouble started.
The day after I resubscribed, and my £9.99 was taken from my account, I tapped my Times icon to get my morning dose of news. I was told my subscription had run out. So I tried again, and got the same message. So I tried to find somewhere on The Times website where I could register that there was a problem. That place was not easy to find. Especially on an iPhone screen. But I found it. I’m not easily put off. I sent my mail off – not the most intuitive or easy process, but I did it. I got a message back saying the Times web team would get back to me “as soon as possible”.
About 24 hours later, they got back to me. I guess that’s not a bad response time. Unless you are trying to read a newspaper that, 24 hours after publication, is out of date. The response told me that “you will need to contact Apple directly. This is due to data protection requirements, which do not allow us access to your iTunes account.” Ah those data protection requirements – they allow access to my bank account, but they don’t allow me access to what I’ve paid for. But this is the modern world of commerce, so I mailed Apple. Again, a more complex experience than, say, buying something – but I’m starting to understand that the digital marketplace is all about making it easy to sell us stuff, but less easy to resolve any problems.
Apple told me that I would receive a message back, “generally with 24 hours”. I reflected that it was a good job I wasn’t trying to buy, let’s just take a random example, a daily newspaper, as after three days it would be a bit pointless. But, sure enough, less than 24 hours later I got a reply from “Ronnie” at the iTunes Store. He asked me to accept “sincere apologies for the frustration this app has caused”. And he told me that i would get a refund of my sub. Then he said I should not try to repurchase The Times iPhone app “for at least two weeks”. That would give Apple time to see what the problem was.
So, to summarise, not only could I not read the newspaper I had paid for, but I could also not try to read it again for two weeks. Does anyone at Apple or The Times actually understand the purpose of a newspaper? Do they know why it is important to read that newspaper on the day it is published? Do they understand how it is that newspapers retain readers, or how they lose them? All of these questions are still rushing around my head.
It seems as if The Times iPhone app, and quite probably other news apps, is seen as simply some more digital product. Some “stuff” that people consume. There seems to be little consideration of how the audience works, and little willingness to engage with that audience.
This is why if I was running a major news organisation, I would be very worried about my app. Because digital delivery is brilliant when it works. But utterly, destructively useless when it doesn’t. And, because of the way the marketplace is developing, it is dominated by third parties who don’t really care what it is that I sell as long as they get their cut. Third parties who know that, if my product tanks, there are plenty more products to take a cut of. So they are not interested, as I am, in building a relationship with an audience that wants to come back for more. They know that if there is no demand for my product, demand for another product is just around the corner.
So, if I was running a major news organisation, I might think this. I might think that I should print my product on some paper. Then I should set up a network to ensure that that paper is delivered to as many outlets, let’s call them newsagents, as I could get it into. That way I would know that, if a customer who wanted my product could not buy it in one newsagent, they would be able to buy it in another. And when someone asked me why I was being stupid enough to believe that print had a future in the face of the supposedly inexorable march of digital, and they gave me all the totally relevant arguments about the measurement of ad efficiency and user connection and flexibility that undoubtedly mean digital offers so many options, I would have a very simple reply. I would say, “because it is easier for my customers to buy”.
From now on, I’ll be getting up five minutes earlier and going to the station via the newsagent’s.