International news brands

I knew that the Guardian and other British news brands had a lot of U.S. traffic, but I didn’t know until Roy Greenslade told me that we Yanks outnumber the Brits as readers of some of them and I wonder what that means for their futures.

The continuing success of British newspapers in attracting US-based online readers has been highlighted in a Times article today by Rhys Blakely. He cites Nielsen/NetRatings figures which show that Guardian Unlimited and TimesOnline have more American than British readers, and that the Daily Telegraph is on the verge of following suit. The Independent is nearly twice as popular in the US as it is here. . . .

Blakely refers to a study by my City University colleague Neil Thurman published in Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism that I’ve been meaning to mention since he sent it to me last week. Entitled The globalisation of journalism online: A transatlantic study of news websites and their international readers, you’ll find a pre-print version here. Thurman discovered that Americans make up an average of 36% of the online audience for British news websites, with up to 39% of readers coming from other countries. This means that as few as one in four readers of British national newspaper websites are based in Britain. And that should give us all pause for thought.

Pause.

Thought: I wonder how much this will change the way these brands are edited as products and managed as businesses. Obviously, I know that my friends and colleagues at the Guardian have been planning their U.S. invasion, hiring an American as U.S. editor. The Times of London has been printing an edition in New York. I’ve lunched with the folks from the Telegraph in New York. They all have visions that the grass is greener on the other side of the ocean. So’s their exchange rate.

But when the majority of your audience comes from outside the UK, I wonder whether that motivates any of these brands to become international first and British second. The national newspaper brands in the UK do better than the locals, which are in the same shape that local newspapers are in the U.S. and much of Europe. So does it stand to reason that being international is even better?

A few buts:

First, Greenslade quotes Thurman pointing out that much of the international audience is transient, coming in for a story and leaving, often sent that way by Drudge. But that’s solvable if the product starts to change to not only entice but entrap us ferners.

Second, it’s hard if not impossible to sell advertising across borders because campaigns are different and money is controlled locally. This is why I’ve suggested to many of these international brands, including ones grown in American soil, that they should create a sales agency for all this quality traffic, selling them all.

Third, there are already some international news brands and they’re mostly TV and they also have big headstarts and big staffs. The BBC is certainly the most international. CNN is worldwide. The International Herald Tribune wants to be global but it’s just too small. Murdoch threatens to make the Wall Street Journal a much bigger international brand. But all those are news brands.

The Guardian is a news-and-perspective brand. The reason so many took to it here, I’ve long said, is that it is an antidote to Fox News, a voice for the political opposition here that has no voice willing to stand up and take the role openly, and it gives us a different viewpoint on our news. Comment is Free expands the worldview — in more than one sense — of the paper and brand and is a key landing craft in their invasion here. The Guardian has no smaller mission and ambition than to be “the world’s leading liberal voice.” And I’m beginning to think that is attainable.

So I think we’ll see international news brands with local revenue: the BBC, Reuters, CNN. We’ll see international niche brands: the Wall Street Journal and the FT all the way down to TechCrunch and PaidContent. And we will see international opinion brands: the Guardian and someone to emerge on the other side.

But what does that do to the local brands? Where do you put the investment? What vantage point do you write from?

Reaction to this news differed from paper to paper. Thurman, who interviewed most of the website editors in depth, reports that some saw the growth of an international audience as an opportunity to build a global brand. Some were altogether less pleased. For example, the editorial director of the Associated Newspapers’ websites saw little value in international readers, saying it would be preferable to “would rather have a 100% UK audience”.
It was also acknowledged by the editors that foreign readers tend to drop in and out rather quickly and are anything but regular visitors to sites. One other less-than-welcome revelation is that as much as a quarter of the US traffic driven towards British papers is due to references on the Drudge Report, the notoriously unreliable political gossip site.
What we don’t know, of course, is what draws American readers to our websites. In a posting earlier this week, I suggested that our news agenda is not as narrow as that of US media. But that may account for a relatively small number of the transAtlantic visitors.
Anyway, given Thurman’s finding that most Americans are infrequent visitors it’s difficult, at present, to imagine any paper being able to attract advertisers based on such disparate appeal. Then again, it is also clear that building a global media brand is the key to future success and which British media outlet is closest to achieving that desirable ambition? The BBC of course. And that is a fact, not a fake.

  • http://www.interguru.com Joe Davidson

    I started reading Brit papers in 1992, because it was impossible to get any useful news about Iraq, and the whole Bush bulldozer, from the cowed American press.

  • http://justenoughtechnology.typepad.com Michael fitzGerald

    I wouldn’t base my marketing strategy on a simple percentage breakdown of where my on-line readers came from. The population of the USA is larger than the UK so you would expect some over-representation anyway. The challenge is to cultivate this overseas audience and encourage repeat visits. It’s only at that point that you have a defined audience.What you do to extract revenue from this new audience seems to be beyond the wit and wisdom of the traditional newspaper. The marginal costs and limited benefits of chasing casual customers in new geographic areas aren’t encouraging

  • http://geoffreyrobinson.blogspot.com Geoff

    What exactly is the problem with getting traffic from Drudge?

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society robertdfeinman

    The BBC world service has been shifting in this direction for some time. Most of their monetary figures are quoted in dollars even when the story is about the UK. There are also more Americanisms (and fewer Britishisms) slipping into the language.

    It would be interesting to know whether this was a general trend in the UK or strictly being done by the presenters. They do stick with their cricket and international soccer scores, however.

    The BBC web site allows one to pick the international or UK version of the site. This seems perfectly reasonable.

  • http://mindymcadams.com/tojou/ Mindy McAdams

    I’ve been thinking this says something about U.S. news online (as well as the obvious about British news online) — people are going somewhere else because the home-grown product is lacking.

    I think it’s not only people looking for a different perspective but also those looking for stories that are not covered (or not covered well enough) in the U.S. press. This includes stories about Iraq and Afghanistan. It also includes news about the floods in South Asia, U.S. policy toward North Korea, and the continuing crisis in Darfur.

  • http://richardstacy.wordpress.com Richard Stacy

    As per the last comment and your assessment of the Guardian – I think the issue is one of perspective. US news media is going to become increasingly exposed as offering a very restricted and heavily commercially compromised perspective. This is a big issue for it if it wishes succeed in the new world and I think the real implications of this research are not so much for the future direction of UK papers and the internationalisation of news brands as a wake-up call to the US media.

    Secondly – transient is good – it is the way of the future. News brands cannot expect to have a monopoly / exclusivity as information sources, they are going to have to commercialise a model that is based on producing floating content where each piece competes for attention in the information pool.

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