Interactive Newspaper Publishing in the UK: An Update

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By: Steve Outing

As in most European countries, publishers in the United Kingdom are streaming onto the Internet in a big way. Recently I interviewed Stovin Hayter, editor of Newspaper Focus, a monthly controlled circulation business magazine that goes out to 3,500 top executives in the newspaper industry, to get an update of what’s happening in the UK.

Q: How many newspapers in the UK are now online, compared to a year ago, and what’s the growth curve look like?

A: “The growth curve has been getting steeper. In August 1994 there was one UK newspaper publisher with a World Wide Web site. In January 1995 there were four. In January 1996 there were 16 and when I last counted (in April) there were 27. That’s 27 publishers. Since some of them are quite large groups, the number of individual newspapers online comes to about 70.”

Q: Which papers do you think are doing the most interesting and innovative work online?

A: “The majority are the standard shovelware, but there are quite a few that are interesting as well. To name a few:

“The Guardian, which has opted not to put the paper online at all but to create an array of niche sites for special subjects or interest groups, almost like targeted supplements to the paper. One is a weekly live political discussion, which is done in conjunction with CompuServe and happens similtaneously on the Web and on CompuServe. It is moderated by one of the Guardian’s senior political journalists and sometimes attracts more than 1,000 people during the discussion, when they get a chance to ask questions of British politicians. (Details can be found on http://www.guardian.co.uk/.

“Another is http://www.eurosoccer.com/, called simply Eurosoccer.com, for which the Guardian has reputedly received more than 300,000 pounds from car manufacturer Vauxhall/Opel. The economic model here is interesting, since it is not advertising, or even sponsorship in the simple sense, but according to the Guardian a partnership or joint venture between it and Vauxhall. So I suppose it is something between sponsorship and a contract publishing arrangement. There are a number of other Guardian-related Web sites. All were created by (its) New Media Lab — in effect a product research and development unit for online media.

“News International has a Web site for The Times, and the most interesting there is the personalized newspaper you can get if you give them enough information about yourself. But far more interesting is a series of online ventures the company has announced just in the past few weeks. One of these is News EyeQ — a dial-up information service with news and data aimed at a business audience. Revenue will be from subscriptions. It will reportedly get content from more than 6,000 newspapers, business publications and other sources worldwide and will compete with the likes of Maid and FT Profile. Later on, paying subscribers will be able to access News EyeQ over the Internet as wll as direct dial-up.

“The other is a joint venture with the Press Association (the UK’s leading national news agency/wire service) to create a searchable database of classified ads from regional newspapers all over the country as well as nationals. The newspapers will pay a subscription to have their classifieds included and people using the papers’ own Web sites will be able to search first the paper’s ads and then have their search widened to the national database. As far as the users are concerned, it is a service provided by their local paper and they will see their own paper’s branding on it. News International claims that Classified Link UK, as it will be called, will be the biggest such site in the world, with more ads from more titles than any other. Neither of these is up and running yet but you can check out the Times on http://www.the-times.co.uk/.

“The Mirror Group is the official UK news provider for America Online’s newly launched European service, and is being paid a straight fee for it. It has put the daily and Sunday Mirror, The People and the Independent and Independent on Sunday onto AOL. The deal does not prevent Mirror Group from creating Web sites for the papers at some stage, as long as it does not supply to any other online services.

“Far more interesting, however, is what the Mirror Group is doing with The Sporting Life, a daily sports paper concerned mainly with betting and, as a result, mainly with horse racing. It has published on CD-ROM a database of horse racing, containing more than 12.5 million individual records, in which the user can look up the past performance of any horse, jockey or trainer currently active in UK horse racing. To gamblers, this is valuable information and the shrink-wrapped CD-ROM, which comes with software which allows the data to be updated daily over the Internet, is being sold at more than 1,000 pounds apiece. The Mirror has more such sports databases it intends to exploit, and the next logical step will be to start taking online betting, with the Mirror Group skimming off a percentage. Apparently talks are already under way with one of the major UK bookmakers.

“A number of regional groups are also finding that you don’t have to be a national or international name to find the Net ‘interesting.’ Newsquest (formerly Reed Regional Newspapers until the KKR buyout from Reed-Elsevier last year) has a big Web site for its Lancashire papers. Readers enter it via their individual titles, and there is news, features, etc. from the printed papers on the site. Not very interesting. However, all the classifieds from the titles (more than a dozen of them) go into a single database. So anyone searching it gets a choice from the whole county, not just their own paper, which is an incentive to the readers of the printed papers to check out the Web site. It is also being presented as an added value benefit to advertisers, who will reach more people. Newsquest claims its classified volumes have improved noticeably as a direct result. Newsquest has also found that being local can have its global advantages — it has signed one-year contracts with six tourism promotion authorities so far to put local information about their areas up on the Web, easily accessible to potential visitors to the area no matter where they are in the world. The idea is that people will eventually be able to book their hotels or tickets to events or whatever over the Web. The URL is http://www.newsquest.co.uk/.

“Northcliffe’s group in the southwest of England has done a similar thing with the car ads from its papers. The site is called Autonet (http://www.autonet.com/), and the interesting thing is that it includes not only the classifieds but also all the individual cars listed in the display and semi-display ads from dealers. Getting these into the database has been made possible with the use of a QuarkXPress XTension from the front-end systems developer Miles 33. The database is based on the Verity software and allows natural language searching and will also pick up ads which are relevant to the search but which might not contain any of the exact search terms — so a search for ‘red Granada with sunroof for less than 7,500 pounds’ would still retrieve ‘2.0 Ford Gran., damask, low mileage, extras incl EFFSR, 6,250 ono, Tel:…’ Another nice touch is that it allows special emphasis to be placed on dealers, so a search for a BMW could bring up a paid ad or other information about a local BMW dealer.”

Q: What makes these services stand out, in your opinion?

A: “In nearly all the interesting cases the publishers have managed to break free of the crippling question: How do I put a newspaper on the Web? To ask, what useful service can I provide to my readers and/or advertisers and so strengthen my brand by extending it (not transferring it) to a new medium?”

Q: Has any UK newspaper company figured out how to make a decent profit from new media/online ventures yet?

A: “I think the Mirror’s deal with AOL is profitable. I would be surprised if the Sporting Life venture is not hugely profitable. News International’s Times Web site is not profitable but its other ventures could be — too soon to tell yet. The Guardian’s online activity as a whole is probably not profitable — it has had precious little sponsorship or advertising other than the Vauxhall deal, but then, that one has probably made up for all the others. Expect more ‘partnerships’ involving the Guardian. The Newsquest and Northcliffe sites probably don’t make that much money in their own right, but there is no doubt they are benefitting the papers, and the companies anticipate that at some stage in the future they may be able to charge for searches of the online databases.

“Even if the ventures are not immediately profitable, the newspapers are establishing their franchise in the online medium, and maintaining their grip over their territories. They know only too well that if they were not doing this, someone else would. Already, you see local Internet service providers in the UK adding ‘editorial’ content and services in an attempt to create the kind of geographically based community of interest that might traditionally have been seen as the domain of the local paper, with entertainment listings, directories of local businesses and the like. One or two newspapers are even supplying a news feed to such sites, and have a few pages on the site. I think they’re crazy, because they are giving away their franchise. There is also talk of estate agencies getting together to advertise residential properties on the Web, which would also nibble away at newspapers’ revenue. And there are already lots of sites with UK job ads.

“But all these niche ventures are at a disadvantage because of their niche nature — they lack the community of interest and variety of complementary content and services that attracts readers to newspapers in the first place. Newspapers are still best placed to be the primary providers of community and geographically rooted information. But they need to do it before someone else gets in and claims the territory for themselves.

“The question newspapers should be asking is not ‘How can I make money on the internet?’ but ‘Can I afford not to?'”

Q: What revenue model are you seeing as favored by newspaper publishers online?

A: “Advertising/sponsorship is expected to be the biggest revenue earner. The only true subscription based service is News International’s planned News EyeQ, which is aimed not at the general public but a specialist business market. Some papers anticipate being able to charge for added value services (things that go beyond normal editorial content) such as database or archive searches, or personalized newspapers and the like.”

Q: What is the most important development or trend in UK newspaper Web publishing today?

A: “I think databases — both editorial and classified ads — will be hugely important. The Web is horrible for reading stuff in quantity. It’s great for finding stuff. The question to ask is not, what can people read online but what is useful to them.”

Contacts: Stovin Hayter, stovin@mackeson.demon.co.uk

The European Journalism Page

Stovin Hayter also maintains the European Journalism Page, an excellent source of information and links to European media activity on the Internet. You’ll find links to most UK newspapers on the Web on this page.

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This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at outings@netcom.com

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