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.


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.