Media Perspective: Newspaper groups up the ante in online willy waving contest

Newspaper groups like a good fight. Witness the comments this week from the editor of News International's thelondonpaper accusing rival Associated Newspapers of stealing its purple identity.

Do readers or advertisers really give a toss? Just occasionally, though, the papers get involved in fights worth winning. The new battleground, or at least the one that has grown in intensity over recent months, revolves around who offers the most successful online offering.

Last November, the Telegraph Group managed to provoke Guardian News and Media into a state resembling anger by claiming that it had become Britain's number-one quality newspaper website (overtaking Guardian Unlimited). The claim, based on data supplied by the internet research company Hitwise dating back to last summer, then became the basis of a promotional ad campaign to push Telegraph Online and The Daily Telegraph's PDF version.

On the issue of measurement, there's no real sign of agreement among the newspaper groups over which research is the most accurate, with most seeming to favour the scheme that portrays them in the best light. There is some hope in that the ABC, through its ABCe certification, already offers a daily figure of unique users, the closest thing to an average circulation figure, but for the time being it's the sheer level of investment from the newspaper groups that is of most interest.

And as if the Telegraph Group wasn't boastful enough in crowing about its move to space-age offices in Victoria, then its rivals have proved more than adept in the willy waving contest. This week, Times Media was less than coy in declaring that it's spending more than £10 million on a relaunch of Times Online. The relaunch involves the usual mix of "world-class journalism" and Web 2.0 content supplied by readers. There's much to admire in the update, which provides a cleaner look and greater use of audio and video content. But then the Guardian and Telegraph sites are pretty strong too and arguably we're only at the start of the next stage of an evolutionary process.

As Murdoch MacLennan, the Telegraph Group's chief executive, said this week: "The competition is changing, it's digital, it's global - and it's getting fiercer by the day." It's now possible to compare the online newspaper world to that of broadband and digital TV, where consumers will be the immediate winners from greater competition while the media owners tear chunks out of each other. It's great to see Times Media investing so heavily in strong editorial but this may not be enough alone in this free content world - the smartest commercial solutions, including better audience targeting, will also be instrumental to finding the route to success. And there's a long way to go on this.