Since Stig Abell became editor of the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) in May 2016, one of his aims has been to expand the title's digital presence and introduce the weekly literary journal to as many people as possible, whether that's readers who "thought about TLS a while ago and forgot about it, or those who've never really come across it".
Contrary to what its name may suggest, the publication ceased to be a supplement to The Times in 1914 – it also covers a broader range of topics other than literature.
"We do far more than the name suggests," Abell told Journalism.co.uk. "We cover topics as broad as politics, science, law, anthropology, architecture and arts.
"My pitch is that anyone who studied humanities at university and has now probably moved into a job may want to get back to a time when they read books that challenge them, books that are important and contain big ideas.
"Obviously life gets in the way of reading very often, and the purpose of the TLS is to re-engage people with things they might miss otherwise. Our target audience is anyone from 15 to 90 who is either in education or more likely left education to start a job, but still wants to be reminded of important books and ideas."
The TLS newsroom is formed of 15 regular staff members, including a managing editor, a deputy editor and commissioning editors, who oversee contributions from more than 1,000 writers and experts from around the world, and occasionally write for the publication themselves.
The title primarily publishes reviews and the decade-old blog A Don's Life, written by English scholar and classicist Mary Beard, but has been "expanding a bit more" to include essays and personal perspectives. A considerable part of its digital content is available behind a paywall, including the archive and NB, 'dispatches from our literary correspondent'.
There are three standard subscription options for readers: print only (£115/year), digital only (£75/ year) and combined (£120/year), with most people opting for either a combined or digital subscription. A few select articles from print are made available online for free every week, and TLS also commissions free pieces specifically for the website, which cannot be found in the print version, with the aim of putting the content and the brand in front of more people and turning them into subscribers.
Experimenting with free content in formats other than writing has also been a focus for Abell, who launched a weekly TLS podcast and newsletter in June, both designed to give people a taste of the broad range of topics covered by the publication.
The podcast, called TLS Voices, is available on the website as well as through iTunes and Acast, and usually features a 40-minute conversation in which Abell and TLS commissioning editor Thea Lenarduzzi interview two or three of the writers featured in that week's print edition. Abell, who is also a Sunday afternoon presenter on LBC Radio, said he was keen to transfer the "warmth and conversational style" of a radio programme to the podcast and to ensure it "reflects the broad range of subjects within the paper".
"It's a podcast designed for your commute and we bring on people who are experts in areas you'll probably not going to find many of the podcasts covering – it could be a philosopher, it could be someone who talks about the study of classics or the paintings of David Hockney."
The newsletter, which Abell said gets "fairly healthy open and click-through rates", is manually curated by one of the journalists in the newsroom every week, and it features a mix of stories from behind and in front of the paywall to "tell people what's going on in the paper".
Some of TLS's most read stories are a combination between "fast-moving and news driven" pieces and longform journalism, such as an article about Donald Trump voters, published the day after the election, for example, a 3,000-word profile of Wittgenstein or a longform piece about the future of capitalism.
"It shows we've got an eclectic audience and people want to read and share longer pieces, but they will also come for a quick hit on something topical, so we are trying to balance what we deliver."
TLS has also experimented with events. At the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2016, the title produced a free print edition just for the festival's attendees, which contained three or four new pieces and a selection of the best articles from the TLS that year. Abell said it was a "profitable venture", backed by advertising. The idea of a pop-up free paper at a literary festival is something he would like to do more of in the future.
Even though TLS includes advertising in both its print and digital editions, subscriptions make up most of the title's revenue and Abell is confident there is room to keep growing.
In the last six months, TLS has registered growth both in print and digital. According to the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), TLS's total circulation is 32,166. Traffic to the website has also grown by 500 per cent over the past six months, and Abell said TLS's audience is "just about" more mobile than on desktop now.
"I think niche, high-quality, subscription-based journalism has a big future and I think we sort of fit into that world where someone might want to have a physical copy of a well produced magazine but also read some stories on their phone or iPad. And that total product taken together, weekly, for a subscription, feels like something that's sustainable going forward."
TLS's strategy mirrors in some ways the strategy of The New Yorker, he added, even though at a much smaller scale. Abell said he generally sees any publications that produce "serious, weekly journalism" that people are spending their money on as competitors, be it The Spectator, New Statesman, or The Economist, because "we are competing for the same investment".
"We have a well produced, high-quality weekly product, which is generally speaking paid for, but we're very keen to do free stuff that gets people talking about TLS, which is a way to get them to think more about us. We use the podcast and the newsletter in the same way, we're very keen for people to be engaged with what we're doing in whatever format we can get them."
A format he thinks has potential for the future and that he would like TLS to explore is literary video, and figuring out what it could look like, whether that's video interviews or something more artistic, such as videos that illustrate ideas.
"I firmly believe that in the digital world particularly, which is very clickbait-driven, very driven by a fast, flat, democratised exchange of information, there is a real counter culture developing for longform reads, for depth, for expertise. And I think we are part of that."
Free daily newsletter
- Nine journalism podcasts to help you get through the pandemic
- Predictions for digital journalism: audience, diversity and newsroom leadership in 2022
- By dropping its paywall for a day, the FT lost out on subscriptions but found new, engaged audience
- 12 replies to common objections to using data in the newsroom
- Five tips for publishers to make the most out audio