NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON ONLINE NEWSPAPERS - Will the tabloids be rewarded for retaining faith in the net? Newspapers are still eager to use the net to exploit their brands, Alasdair Reid says

You can be forgiven for assuming that, if old school publishers are

going to inherit the internet (and an awful lot of people still assume

that they will), then it's going to happen by default. This is turning

into a duffers' sack race with the winners destined to be those that are

slightly less accident prone than the rest.



But, after all, who but publishers are going to entertain and inform us

online? When it comes down to it, aren't they the ones with the real

expertise at throwing words and pictures together in mildly diverting

ways?



Unfortunately, some publishers don't seem to believe it themselves. The

big consumer publishers, for instance, such as Emap and IPC, have made

extremely heavy weather of extending their media properties into the

digital market. And the national newspaper groups, with the odd

exception, have hardly been much better.



Mirror Group, for instance, has attempted to set itself up as an

internet service provider, even flirting with free, unmetered access;

and has tried to launch a major portal brand. News International has

also followed a similar arc. Remember currantbun.com?



But fear not. They're back. And this time it's serious. Both

mirror.co.uk and thesun.co.uk have revamped their sites. The Sun's is

more of a tweak to give increased prominence to its entertainment and

sport offerings as well as its news content - but The Mirror's rethink

is more radical.



Not before time. Even The Mirror's internet editor, Matt Kelly, admits

that the paper's previous efforts were embarrassing. He says: "It was

managed by a machine based in Birmingham or something and it just

stripped out every single word from the paper and piled it all on to the

internet. It was every single spit and cough without any extra

journalistic input whatsoever."



In the revamp, Kelly has sought to create a simple design that reflects

the flavour and look of the newspaper. "What we didn't want to do was go

for the slick production values of a magazine - because the site is

about news. It's in marked contrast to The Sun which doesn't have an

emphasis on the hustle and bustle of news," he says.



Not a huge contrast, though. Many media buyers praise the fact that both

are now truer to their parent titles, and are perhaps following a lead

set by megastar. co.uk, which has always managed to capture the cheeky

chappie spirit of its former parent, the Star.



But as Damien Blackden, the managing director of Universal Interactive,

points out, this approach is not without its drawbacks. He explains:

"The strengths of both The Sun and The Mirror offline are tone and

personality and you'd think that with all the interactive opportunities

you have online, you could take that even further. But, in actual fact,

it's harder. The newspaper is read in groups and it's a laugh in that

group environment.



That doesn't happen online. They've now successfully taken the content

and put it up on the web which is a step in the right direction. But

it's content in an environment that strips it of personality. I still

believe they have to think harder about what they can provide that's

unique in the web context."



What about the business strat-egy? Publishers are now regarding web

publications as brand extensions. But in advertising sales terms the

situation is far more problematical - it's difficult to sell

cross-platform opportunities while the properties serve different

audiences. So different that in the past they have often been regarded

as separate businesses. Megastar illustrates this perfectly. The website

and newspaper are now owned by two companies.



Kelly admits he has no monopoly on wisdom here. He says: "The idea is

obviously for the site to be self-funding but I don't believe anyone can

talk with any authority about business strategies on the internet. The

most obvious route now - to charge for content - is a non-starter for

the foreseeable future. But whether you think the site is there to

promote circulation or to increase revenue, it's good for the kudos of a

newspaper to have a good presence on the internet."



So what are the implications for advertisers? Greg Grimmer, a managing

partner of Optimedia, agrees that publishers would ideally want to

leverage cross-platform deals - and the agency is also keen to pursue

those. But he can't see it happening with The Sun or The Mirror.



He states: "The audience of the red top newspapers is very different to

their websites. The traditional red top newspaper advertisers are the

big retailers and they have struggled to evolve online strategies in

their own businesses. It's very difficult for them to convert online. We

are still trying to be advocates (of the web and cross-platform

strategies) but the traditional retailers are the ones who are hardest

to convert."



As many observers point out, the backbone of the red top audience is the

C2 demographic and they're not people who sit in front of a computer

screen for upwards of eight hours a day. Some, however, disagree.



Appearances can be deceptive in this market - forget cross-platform

deals, the Mirror and Sun sites could be of increasing interest to many

advertisers, especially if the revamped editorial increases the volume

of traffic.



As Henry Rowe, a group head at I-level, puts it: "I actually think their

audience is similar to the City boys who leave their copy of The Sun on

the tube. For some brands, you wouldn't use The Sun newspaper to reach

that audience because it wouldn't be cost-efficient. But online you only

pay for what you get and the environment is a good one. I think The Sun

especially is on track and taking it in-house and aligning it with the

newspaper will really enhance its proposition."



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