So who is winning the prop@g@nda w@r?

Has been caught out by the new ABCe internet reports? His dispute with the Guardian over who has the biggest hits rages on. So what does make of it?

In terms of monetising eyeballs, metrics matter. As we all know. So the advent of the "ABCe" figures, providing audited data on unique users and page impressions on a monthly basis ... No, come back, please. You have not stumbled into anorak's corner by mistake. No more jargon, except in quotes. Promise.

Now a number of these website people do talk like this, but many don't. These are usually the journalists. But what they lose in cyber jargon, they make up for in sledging competitors - just as they did in newspapers and at awards dinners.

The news websites are now tremendously important, the life-saver in an age of declining newspaper sales. Or so some think, and all hope.

Until now it has been hard to compare the success of different sites. While for years we have had audited, comparable sales figures for the printed press, from a single, trusted independent source, there was no such universal measure of the popularity of websites. It was claim, counter-claim, and choose your statisticswith care.

Not that the newspapers represent the righteous in this area. For years the devil has been in the small print - how many bulk copies given away on trains and planes. But it has been even easier for the websites to confuse, with so many different things to measure in so many ways.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations, a trusted brand in the print world, formed ABCe for that internet colony inhabited by newspapers. It was decided that the most important measure was the "unique user" - a person entering a site at any page and counted once in the audit period. It would also publish page impressions each time a page was visited. The first group reports have just been released, giving a summary of the newspaper circulation figures along with the website usage data.

In March, Guardian Unlimited (and its range of sites) had 15.1 million users across the world. This was the highest figure for newspaper websites, although the BBC has the most users - more than double the Guardian. In second place came Times Online with 8.0 million followed by The Sun at 7.8 million and on 7.4 million. So far, these are the only newspaper groups engaging with the reports - others should follow.

The Guardian (newspaper) trumpeted its success on the front page: "An end to web propaganda: now the first official audited figures. Guardian Unlimited has nearly twice the number of users of any other UK newspaper website."

The Daily Telegraph ran this line across the top of page two: " is now the UK's most visited quality newspaper website." On the face of it, if you lack the geek's eye for detail, that is a straight contradiction of the Guardian statement, and the ABCe figures. But notice the word is "visited"', not "used". And it is UK figures, not global. The Telegraph uses Hitwise, which measures the number of times anybody has visited the site, rather than the number of different people who have done so over the period. The Hitwise data, measured in market share for March, gives the Telegraph 36.5 per cent, the Guardian 30.9 per cent and the Times 27.7 per cent. The figures for UK unique users in March, on the ABCe measure, are the Guardian 5.4 million, the Telegraph 3.0 million and the Times 2.9 million.

Edward Roussel, the Telegraph's digital editor, is not in the least defensive about his paper's claim, which was used in an advert and sparked a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA cleared the Telegraph.

"The traffic you can monetise is your UK traffic," says Mr Roussel. "It's what lets you pay journalists. If you're a vanity publisher, the larger number of people you get, the better. The Guardian has a global strategy. I've yet to hear a Guardian executive talk about revenues and profit. Reason: they don't make a profit. If you're a commercial publisher, it's different.

"The audience we're targeting is British. If we don't cover our costs, we're not in business."

"We didn't complain about the Telegraph," says Emily Bell, director of digital content at the Guardian. "Internecine spats seem a bit 'old media' to me. If only the Telegraph was our main competitor, but that will increasingly be Google and the aggregators. I think this new presentation of metrics is entirely healthy. This is not an inter-paper war; we can be collectively professional. The competition is much greater outside our peer set."

Anne Spackman, editor-in- chief of Times Online, says she cannot have any confidence in the Hitwise measure. She too welcomes the ABCe monthly reports, although they have started at a point when her website has had a tricky relaunch and the unique user figure is down. It will take a month or two to build back to a "true"' figure

The publication of regular audited figures is a mark of online news coming of age. The newspaper websites accept they are in a competitive market that matters - not just for advertising, the most important thing, but also esteem, profile and audience.

The Guardian has held centre stage for a long time because it was an early entrant, it was funded and it was good. But now we are entering the second era of newspaper websites and it will be much more competitive. The Guardian is rebuilding its site gradually and this will continue for another year. It is not like print, says Ms Bell - you cannot just relaunch the whole thing.

Ms Spackman is off to California this week for a meeting with Rupert Murdoch and his senior digital executives. The gathering, she says, will be "exceptionally focused" - on the internet of course. "There are big questions," she adds, "about how you balance paper and web. It is very exciting. The BBC and Guardian invested early and carried on through. Now we are investing very heavily."

At the Independent, which has focused on compact matters more than the website over the past two years, there was a meeting of top executives last week to discuss web strategy. The site has around three million unique users at present. "We will have a redesigned site by September," says Richard Withey, global director of interactive media. "We will invest in the innovative approach that we've always taken with the newspaper. We want to use our web-savvy readers to generate more content."

Suddenly everybody's doing it. Within a year all the quality papers will have relaunched their sites and will be scrambling for revenues. At present the Telegraph is making the noise. It is annoying its rivals with user claims, and then taking the argument to them when they moan.

The new monthly data will prove as interesting as the newspaper circulations- though the agreement over the figures to be published may spoil the robust, if lofty, trading of insults between the website bosses. This would be a pity. We would have to concentrate on hooded cameramen standing beside large wheelie bins waiting for the next free London papers to be dumped.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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