Net natives end dominance of UK broadsheets

UK broadsheet papers need to reinvent their online products and forge alliances with successful natives of the Internet if they are to regain lost ground, argues Tim Satchell

Five years ago, when most people in the UK had yet to click a mouse in anger, the Telegraph took the plunge into cyberspace with the Electronic Telegraph – “the pioneering online newspaper”.

It was soon followed by the other broadsheets, which together made a mockery of overblown claims that the Internet would kill newspapers, and, more importantly, ensured “old media” became a major new media player.

The Net phantom menace was exposed for what it was: a disparate, disorganised group of underfunded bit-players which were ill-equipped to compete once the big players had stepped in.

Online newspapers became the yardsticks of success. As recently as a year ago, only Yahoo!, the BBC and a few of the largest Internet service providers (ISPs) and search engines could boast better monthly page impressions than the Electronic Telegraph’s 11.5 million, Financial Times’ 11 million and Times’ 10.3 million.

But that was then. Today, the parties at Wapping and Canary Wharf are over, long before they had the chance to get into full swing. The Net natives regrouped into an organised, well-financed new media community with its own industry magazines, such as Revolution and New Media Age, discussion forums such as UK Net Marketing and First Tuesday, Soho networking parties and, more importantly, access to wads of corporate finance.

Together, such players are bringing to an end the papers’ dominance of the Web, delivering the Net back to the little people. The dream that anyone – anywhere – with a good idea and solid work ethic can become a Web publisher, in competition with the established media giants, has been resurrected. Independent start-ups such as Football365, CricInfo, Silicon, QXL and, of course, the free ISPs backed by non-media companies such as Freeserve and TescoNet, are building audiences at a voracious rate, while the papers’ page impressions remain fairly static.

The problem for the news-papers is that reproducing content online only works to a point. After all, anyone, anywhere in the UK, can pick up a paper at all local newsagents. There aren’t too many incentives for loyal Times readers to tap www.the-times.co.uk into their PC after reading the hard copy.

The ceiling is closing in on the broadsheets’ readers, and growth strategies seem thin on the ground. So how should they go about expanding their readership?

Rebranding as a fresh, innovative Web publisher rather than a staid, old Fleet Street institution would be a good start. The tabloids have cottoned on to this idea with Currantbun.com, Thisislondon, Sportlive and Megastar. But only The Guardian, with its “unlimited” sites, has shown such flexibility among the big papers. And the biggest problem remains: it’s still the same offline content regurgitated.

The broadsheets need to capitalise on their editorial expertise and credibility to create content that’s unique to the Web. Daily Mail offshoot Associated New Media has done this to good effect by bringing its editorial influences to bear on what was previously a techie-only domain: the search engine. UK Plus stole a march on its competitors by providing site reviews written by journalists, rather than data spewed out by a computer.

They should pursue content partnerships with the large traffic portals. Closely associating their mastheads with upstart Websites has always appalled the broadsheets, but they should swallow their pride.

Full credit to The Guardian for breaking the mould this year. If the broadsheets don’t learn to live and work among the natives, they will return to the online obscurity that the early pundits predicted would be their fate.

Tim Satchell is editorial director at online ad sales, content and e-commerce company e-Space

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