Media: All about ... Online newspapers

Newspapers are taking the fight for readers to the web.

It was no surprise, really, to see The Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade giving the new Mirror website a good kicking the other day. A former Daily Mirror editor, Greenslade continues to have a complex and volatile emotional relationship with the Mirror brand.

Appropriately though, he advanced his case in blog format and many of the responses he stimulated (some of which, who knows, may even have been from Trinity Mirror employees) took issue with his conclusions. Others even went as far as to question his motives.

Yet more evidence, you might think, of the utter triumph of relativism. In Web 2.0, the whole world is a giant content creation committee: judgment is provisional, opinion is a work in progress, and truth infinitely negotiable. Except, it has to be said, in this particular case.

While it's understandable that the website of a proud British press institution such as the Mirror might want to reinvent itself as a multimedia platform, it's more than a little mystifying to discover its video content is third-rate news agency stuff bought in from the US.

The morning after the England versus Spain friendly last week, for instance, the most up-to-date sports content on the site's sports video player was a package about the Superbowl. Without any live action at that. Just interviews and stills.

But you could argue that upgrading to a site with any form of video player is a huge step forward for a publisher that looked as if it had fallen dangerously behind.

And after all, the Mirror isn't the only national newspaper trying to second-guess the future. The past few weeks have seen a host of content upgrades, including a significant one from Times Online.

1. MGN Digital believes the relaunched site now "embraces all aspects of multimedia, Web 2.0 and the latest interactive technology". It will focus on three content areas - news, show business and sport. The home page now hosts embedded video players, one each for the three main content areas. There are also blogs by Mirror journalists - and throughout 2007, MGN Digital plans to recruit more production staff, which will "free up time for online reporters to get back on the road to deliver exclusive interviews and features".

2. The Mirror's move brings it into line with its archrival, the Sun Online, which introduced a video and entertainment news service when it relaunched back in September 2006.

3. The Times spent £10 million relaunching its website on 5 February. Its new "news plus views" editorial strategy sees it embracing blog culture wholeheartedly for the first time and there is more in the way of video content and podcasts. When the new site crashed shortly after it was launched, a Times Online statement claimed that this was not due to technical incompetence on the part of Times Online, but was a reflection of the fact that the relaunch had stimulated a 400 per cent increase in traffic.

4. And The Times isn't the only publisher claiming a huge surge in viewing following a relaunch - in January, the Telegraph launched a controversial poster campaign claiming that, following the brand's much-vaunted reinvention as a multi-platform content provider, was now "Britain's number one quality newspaper site". This led to howls of protest from The Guardian and The Times, which in recent years have regarded themselves as number one and number two in this market. A complaint has also been lodged with Advertising Standards Authority.

5. But the spat has merely served to remind many in the digital market, not least advertisers, that there is no universally recognised trading currency in the online publishing business - not one, at any rate, that delivers guidance akin to the benchmarks provided by the Audit Bureau of Circulations or the National Readership Survey. The Telegraph's claims are based on figures from the research company Hitwise. A very different pecking order is obtained if you use figures from rival research companies using rival methodologies - for instance, Nielsen NetRatings, Comscore or ABCe.

6. The Financial Times launched a new integrated print and online newsroom on 1 October 2006. In order to meet the information demands of its global audience, its journalists will now be required to work an extended rota, with a greater number of early morning shifts. Yet despite aiming to deliver more, the paper actually parted company with 50 journalists - 10 per cent of its editorial staff.



- These are make or break times for some of the media owners in the newspaper sector, especially those that entered the digital era with limited broadcast assets. When they're making such huge leaps of faith, it is perhaps too much to expect everyone to get it right first time.

- They have no option but to keep pushing forward because one thing is for sure - a static, two-dimensional news site is going to find itself falling ever further off the pace and increasingly ignored. The Mirror's determination to compete has to be applauded, even if it has some way to go.


- The market will always applaud moves to improve content and thereby attract a growing audience. But the squabble about which UK quality newspaper is top dog in the UK digital domain was not well-timed. Advertisers like to see media owners competing vigorously, but they will suspect that, in this instance, newspapers would be advised to pay more attention to the bigger picture.

- They might, for instance, tell media owners to look at, which ranks internet sites by popularity. There are only five newspaper-owned sites in the top 100 most-visited UK web destinations: Guardian Unlimited at number 28, The Sun at 41, The Times at 53, and the Telegraph at 99. The top conventional media owner is the BBC at six. True, advertisers have long-established relationships with publishers, but they will be increasingly unwilling to reserve a special pot of ad revenue for the most-visited website owned by a newspaper group.