I’m moving back home to Sydney in a couple of weeks (looking for a job too … anybody need a great insight manager??) and that means I’m spending a lot of time looking at the industry in both Australia and the UK. What I see are some striking differences.
Working in the commercial department of a UK newspaper publisher, the talking point of 2010 (as it was for 2009) will be the great paywall debate. How to make online content pay the bills, in the face of declining revenues from offline businesses, is the issue that keeps my colleagues awake at night, and charges discussion at conferences, on Twitter, and on blogs. The industry has tackled the challenge head on, with big differences emerging in the way different groups are responding to the issue.
The UK online publishing scene is quite different from that of the UK. For a start there’s a bigger footprint: the top 10 UK news sites reach 62% of the population, compared to 42% for Australia’s top sites (according to Doubleclick Google Ad Planner). There are 10 national newspapers in the UK, compared to only the Oz and the AFR in Australia. With all these mastheads jostling for traffic and ad budgets online, and user promiscuity *very* high, it makes for frenetic competition. So it’s no wonder UK newspapers are desperately experimenting, investing and trying new business models.
Of course News International (the Sun and the Times), under Rupert Murdoch have announced a while ago their intention to charge for content in 2010, and the Sunday Times have started laying the groundwork with their Times+ subscribers club. In the opposite corner the Guardian has forcefully criticised News Corp and announced it will continue to experiment with the commercial opportunity of free content. This is based on guardian.co.uk’s massive user base – 35m unique users and climbing – and the likelihood, once the New York Times retreats behind a paywall, of the Guardian becoming the biggest English-language newspaper in the world.
In other areas the Guardian is experimenting with paid content, however, and their iPhone app has been downloaded an impressive 100,000 times at £2.39 (about $4 AUD). Major competitor the Telegraph has launched a venture called Project Euston with a staff of 50(!) and a budget of millions to explore new (not necessarily news-related) digital opportunities. The Telegraph looks more likely to launch a new e-commerce site than it does a news venture. The paper I work for, the Daily Mirror, has been pursuing a strategy of ‘niche-ing’ the core content areas it specialises in into standalone digital properties. So football content has been hived off the main site into a separate domain called mirrorfootball.co.uk and celebrity content into 3am.co.uk. In so doing the Mirror’s created a more rewarding, targeted experience for users, driving loyalty, and (hopefully) created a more valuable environment for advertisers too.
All in all, it’s a hive of activity, especially so when compared to Australia. Of course, the News stable will be following Murdoch’s dictat on paywalls. And Fairfax, with the luxury of watching News play their hand first, announced they would likely do the same. The main difference is Fairfax will go with a ‘freemium’ model where basic access is free and users pay for a more premium experience. Both news groups have invested in content, of course, with News launching thepunch.com.au and Fairfax following shortly after with nationaltimes.com.au (which *seems* to have got a slightly underwhelming reception from media people, although I personally think it’s a good site which will find its audience … but check the comments at bottom of this mumbrella story).
The sense is that both newspapers are moving in lockstep on this issue. Which is fine, and not a criticism – the paywall route is obviously much more likely to be successful if all your competitors are doing it too. And newspaper circulations aren’t in the steep decline we’re seeing in the UK, so the need for radical solutions is less. But if you had to guess where the next exciting model for online newspaper content will come from, you’d have to say it’s much more likely to come from the UK than Australia …
… or will it? Because one of the really exciting things I’ve seen in Australia, that I definitely don’t see to the same degree in the UK, is exciting new content startups like this, this, this, and this. All launched by ex-’big media’ journos, all no doubt run on a shoestring budget, and all punching far above their weight for traffic and attention, and, I’d guess, ad budgets. With journalists-as-entrepreneurs very much on the new media agenda, these are some of the more exciting content experiments I’ve seen, and an area where Australia genuinely does seem to be leading the UK. Makes you proud to be Australian!