Crisis? What crisis?

Crisis? What crisis?

News International's digital director Nick Bell talks to Andrew Mernin about the future of the embattled organisation.

What started as a single flickering flame fast raged into an inferno which no amount of fire-fighting could douse. It was an injured Royal knee which sparked one suspected phone hacking incident but before long this had spiralled into double figures. Widespread public scorn followed.

The police became both investigator and investigated. Celebrities mobilised and militarised as one to kick an old foe at its lowest ebb. Actors and comedians took to soap boxes on news and politics TV shows and called for justice. Money changed hands and their calls grew quieter, but the scandal raged on.

A horse with a dubious past trotted into the spotlight. Secret shipments of Champagne were also exposed – as were legal payments, gumshoes, sleuths and other enveloped shadiness.

While the phone hackers and their puppet masters brought their comeuppance on themselves, surely no company on British soil has endured such a prolonged period of scandal as News International has in the last 18 months.

But in the aftermath of the death of one of its newspaper institutions and the seventh coming of another, the show goes on for the firm’s well appointed digital team.

Two years ago Nick Bell was a high flying serial entrepreneur with a success rate that belied his years, having started out in business as a teenager. Today, while he still has an interest in his most recent success – video technology business QuickTV – and continues to invest in start ups, his main responsibility is heading up all things mobile, web and tablet at News International.

“My views on what happened are pretty irrelevant really, but I did have a close working relationship with the guys on the News of the World and it was a sad time, but for us as an organisation we’ll come back stronger,” says the director of digital consumer products.

“It’s been a really, really tough year for the business and as with most media organisations it can be a bit like a family and when people lose their jobs or there’s disruption, it’s always going to be tough.

“But we can’t get bogged down with that too much and we have to focus on the fact that there’s a huge amount of positive stuff going on.”

Such positivity perhaps comes on the back of recent triumphs in markets where few others have succeeded. The pay wall debate is one that has divided opinion in newsrooms across the country as editors of all publications look for a commercial future amid dwindling print sales and a depressed advertising market.

The latest figures suggest that Bell and his team have just about cracked it, with the number of people subscribing to the digital version of The Times rising by 7.5% between September and January to 120,000.

In the same period there was a 35% hike in the number of iPad Times readers, with a daily average of 60,000 people downloading the newspaper in January. Those figures came almost 20 months after the controversial launch of the pay wall and were a welcome lift in the face of an almost 25,000 plunged in print sales of The Times in the September to January period.

The obvious question is whether The Sun, complete with its new seven day status, is being primed for a pay wall launch. “No direct decision has been made on that yet but obviously, based on the success of The Times, I think we’d be stupid to discount it,” says Bell. “I think there’s two very definite ways of looking at it but we haven’t made a direct decision and I think we’ll continue to monitor what our users want. As with anything on the web, if you put enough value into it then people will be willing to pay for it.”

Bell joined News international in 2010 before the media storm ripped through the London organisation, joining CIO Paul Cheesbrough, who served as a non executive director of the young entrepreneur’s Quick TV venture.

Bell was enlisted to help set up a new digital function within the business. Although this existed previously, it was, according to the Northumbrian, not a particularly lucrative or pioneering part of the business.

“It’s one thing having a digital team and another thing having a driving digital force behind the business. I think we’ve changed the ethos and it’s now called technology rather than IT.

“As a department we used to be the whipping boys. Things would get thrown over the fence, get developed and then given back but I certainly feel we are now leading those conversations. We’re driving innovation here and there’s almost a start-up feel and approach to how we are moving things forward.”

Bell explains the growth of the News International’s tech team with a football analogy.

“It’s like being a football manager. It takes time to get the right guys in but when you get them playing your way it’s worth it. It’s when you get there and you can call it your own and get really excited about what you want to do.

“We’re recruiting some really brilliant people from the likes of Google and Apple and from that point of view we are pretty much unrecognisable from where we were 18 months ago. There’s a real buzz about the people we’ve brought in.”

Much of Bell’s excitement comes from the knowledge that the team’s technology products ultimately reach millions of users.

“We are starting to build up a real critical mass of users and we have 100,000 editions of the Times read on a tablet every day. So we’ve got loads of data and we can start shaping our products towards real usage rather than second guessing how people are going to use it.”

Recent research from Enders Analysis predicts that newspaper print media advertising is set to continue to decline by around 4% this year. Not so long ago national media empires were also warning staff that the last newspaper would roll off the press in 2035. But now Bell believes there is an industry-wide recognition that content is king, whichever medium delivers it.

“We don’t worry about how long print is going to be around for. The concern for us is to continue offering quality journalism regardless of the consumption device. If you look at The Times last year we were the only paper to experience net growth and people are prepared to pay for quality. It’s been well documented that the papers are declining but actually our paying audience is increasing so that can only be a good thing.

“E-books are an interesting place for us. Before Christmas we released a new version of The Times on Kindle which includes more pictures and I think our customers are responding well. Apps are also interesting and we actually refer to them as digital print now as we see them as hybrid between the two.”

In the run up to News of the World’s disappearance from Sunday newsstands, several major advertisers like Dixons, O2 and Argos were quick to withdraw from the paper.

Bell says he is not privy to any evidence to suggest that such bellwether brands have returned – digitally or in print – to the Sun on Sunday.

He does, however, believe that the Sun’s appearance every day is geared up for online success, given the work that has been done in the backdrop.

“We wanted to make sure The Sun was a considered experience for users across the seven days. We approach The Times and Sun in a very similar manner. We’ve moved away from making anecdotal decisions to using data and we have a ‘best of breed’ technology platform which we’ve developed in-house.”

In keeping with the creative, start-up ethos that Bell so enthuses about, News International now has an enforced RnD quota for its technical staff.

“Everyone spends one twelfth of their time working on RnD so it basically means that engineers know for a month of the year they’ll be working on really interesting, cutting edge stuff which helps with recruitment but also helps to constantly push and challenge people. We’re keen to fail fast and we’re not scared to try things.

“We’ve also moved away from a project-based approach. We used to ring-fence lots of cash and work across the team on the project from beginning to end and move onto the next project.

“We now have a much more product-based approach and we release often. By that I mean we get to a point every two weeks to release something so we are constantly moving forward. It’s a bit of a matrix.”

While the organisation has changed the way it uses mobile technology [phone-hacking quip goes here], it has also changed Bell’s opinion on the big company experience.

“I was a bit nervous coming from a small organisation and joining a huge corporation but when you are a start-up you want three things; resources, traction and a strong brand. At News International we’ve got all three in bucket loads.”

Few would argue that the company does indeed have the first two in abundance. But perhaps ‘strong’ is not the word to describe the brand just yet given the damage done of late. With motivated figures like Bell behind the scenes though, the company’s ongoing development is inevitable in the digital space at least.