Instead of killing off British newspapers, the internet has presented them with a new opportunity

It’s 2014 and we’re still waiting for the British to catch up with America's digital pioneers


Exactly a decade ago, in the week that Piers Morgan was frogmarched out of the Daily Mirror for publishing fake photos, Associated Newspapers finally took the plunge and launched

It was May 2004 and the storm clouds of the internet were hanging over the national press with a menace that could no longer be ignored. Associated’s decision had been taken after some deliberation and fully nine years after The Daily Telegraph became the first British national newspaper to go online.

At the time of the launch, Associated Newspapers executive Avril Williams noted that “a lot of stories featured in the paper are very long and don’t work on the web”.

The Mail had previously dipped its toes into the internet world by launching niche sites, including an offshoot of its Femail women’s pages.

“We don’t just put a newspaper online,” said Ms Williams.

They were prescient words and the showbiz-driven site is a very different animal from the print product. Even so, the success of Mail Online under publisher Martin Clarke was unimaginable in 2004.

Mail Online enjoys a monthly audience of 180 million and is the largest English-language news site in the world. In a recent interview with the New York Observer, Mr Clarke described plans to double his reporting team in the Big Apple and move to new offices in Lower Manhattan.

It’s not just the Mail – the British news media as a whole has seen the value of being more discreet about its national origins and wrapping itself in the mantle of “global publisher”. The Guardian was mocked when it set out its ambition to become “the world’s leading liberal voice” but, five years later – positioned to the left of The New York Times and enjoying growing recognition in the United States and Australia – its worldwide audience is  102 million and that grand claim is no longer implausible.

Beyond the Mail and The Guardian, a host of other British news brands are looking to build their global presence: notably the Telegraph, The Independent and the Mirror. The growth of English as the lingua franca not just of business but of most conversations involving speakers with different native tongues, offers opportunities for British news providers that are not there for the likes of Die Welt, De Telegraaf, Le Monde or Corriere della Sera.

While the five British brands mentioned trace a significant proportion of their traffic to North America, there is still considerable room for growth in territories such as India, South-east Asia, China and the Middle East, where there is considerable appetite for news in English.

The names of old Fleet Street have stepped on to the international stage with a greater confidence than most of their counterparts from other English-speaking countries. Their competitors consist largely of digital US news brands: the Huffington Post, Gawker, TMZ, Buzzfeed and Vice.

“International audiences respect our values and history,” says Rufus Olins, chief executive of Newsworks, which represents UK national titles. “When one looks at the global stage in a few years there will be a number of British news brands bestriding it.”

While the Mail’s intensive showbiz coverage and The Guardian’s liberal journalism have clearly found markets online, other British titles must work harder to show where they fit in to the global conversation.

In most newsrooms, tension remains between more serious content in the paper and click-friendly online material which produces greater traffic but sets a different tone.

The Telegraph's conundrum is that its brand of conservatism works well in print but can feel unadventurous online. Its blogs about Ukip are great drivers of traffic but take it into Fox News territory while doing little to persuade younger readers that the title is no longer the natural home of colonels in shires.

It is trying to shore up its reputation as a digital publisher with new travel and motoring apps and now, bizarrely, the football-based microsite The Babb Project, named after erstwhile Liverpool defender Phil Babb.

Telegraph editor-in-chief Jason Seiken says the site is aimed at a younger audience more likely to find Telegraph sports content on Facebook than on the main site. The name “project” reflects “more of a Silicon Valley approach than a traditional newspaper approach”, he says, adding that the paper needs to adopt a “digital native culture” if it is to thrive.

“We need to shed our perfectionism and launch offerings that are not as highly polished as the day’s newspaper but [allow you to] learn from how the audience is using them, and review and improve them,” he adds.

Although the site looks at global football, the Premier League is clearly another form of international currency that benefits British news sites.

It is not surprising that Trinity Mirror is developing its own football microsite, Mirror Row Zed, timed to coincide with Brazil 2014.

Paul Bradshaw, a professor in online journalism at City University in London, has been impressed with other Mirror digital initiatives: the laddish and Buzzfeed-inspired UsVsTh3m and the more serious but visual ampp3d, both of which are shaped by user data and encourage sharing on social media. “They’ve been successful in the UK and are going international,” he says.

Rather than causing the lingering death of British newspapers, the internet has brought opportunity. The downside is that the strength of these established news brands has stifled creativity elsewhere.

“There hasn’t been much innovation in news online,” says Bradshaw, of the lack of alternative UK sites.

It’s 2014 and we are still waiting for the British equivalents of Slate, Politico, Quartz, Salon and the Daily Beast, all American digital news brands with both feet on the global stage.

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