Online newspapers: News of the world | The Economist
IN JANUARY the New York Times lost its top spot in comScore’s ranking of the world’s biggest newspaper websites to Britain’s Daily Mail. The Times sniffed at the accuracy of comScore’s figures, which exaggerate the Mail’s online audience by including a personal-finance site that the paper owns. But the battle to be biggest reflects a growing phenomenon: national news publications going global.
A mere one-quarter of the Mail’s online readers are in Britain. The Guardian, which caters to those who like their news left-leaning and serious in contrast to the Mail’s right-wing raciness, has one-third in Britain and another third in America (see charts). Their chief competitors are two American publications: the New York Times, which like the Guardian aims at readers of serious news, and the Huffington Post, which since its launch in 2005 has become the biggest site of the four (it is not in comScore’s “newspaper” category).
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That the HuffPo is beating papers with a history stretching back to the 19th century is a sign of just how differently news works online. The HuffPo is designed for the wired generation’s short attention spans and addiction to social media; alone of the four, it has managed recently to increase its “stickiness”, the number of stories each visitor reads. And it mixes both hard and frothy news (much of it rewritten from other sources, though an increasing amount is original) with generous dollops of opinion by guest bloggers.
This has proved an especially potent formula in America, where the big papers tend to be somewhat po-faced. That is because their dominance in their home cities inclined them towards a neutral stance, to attract the widest possible readerships there, whereas the big British papers, having developed as national outlets, used political leanings to distinguish themselves in a competitive market. Hence, also, the success of the Guardian and the Mail in America. As the Fox News channel discovered earlier, a lot of Americans like their news sources to have a political slant.
The HuffPo and Times are less global than their British rivals, with three-quarters and two-thirds of their readers, respectively, in America. But those proportions, too, are edging downwards.
Global news outlets are of course nothing new: the BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera, as well as the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and indeed The Economist, have long aimed at a worldwide audience, and newswires like Reuters and Bloomberg have big, free online offerings. But in future, argues Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Outsell, a consultancy, there will be fewer national news outlets online. More will either look for new ways to make money from a small local audience, or try to get as big a global one as possible.
The reason is the grim economics of online news. Only a few, business-oriented newspapers are making money by charging readers for access. For most papers, what they publish is too similar to what people can get free elsewhere. Advertising, the other chief source of revenue, is worth far less per reader online than in print. So their best bet for making money is to pull in more readers for the same content.
Cultivating foreign advertisers takes time, however. “We always had a large US audience,” says James Bromley, the managing director of the Mail online, “which people used to point to as a weakness because we couldn’t monetise them.” But, he adds, “the marginal cost of the [extra] audience is basically zero, so any ads were a profit.” The Guardian’s ads, too, earn less per reader in the United States than on similar American sites, says Andrew Miller, the chief executive of Guardian Media Group. But they still help the bottom line.
Unfortunately, even a big jump in online advertising will not make up for the decline of print: newspapers’ websites account for a relatively small share of total revenue (about one-fifth for the Guardian, just 2.6% for the Mail). At this stage, it is all about capturing audience. The Mail now has about 30 staff in the United States to create stories for its American readers; the Guardian also has 30 in a new bureau in New York, and has experimented with translation, posting some of its Arab-spring coverage in Arabic. Neither seems to think of itself as essentially British any more, at least online. Of the Mail, Mr Bromley says, “Our audiences in the UK and US are more similar to one another than to their neighbours in either place.”