Newspaper executives should look away now

Hard on the heels of the news that online advertising revenue will soon be the largest category of ad income in the UK, comes this polling result on the sites people go to for their online news. As The Guardian reported it:

“Newspaper executives should look away now. For the 83% that said they had accessed news online in the past month, websites of the national newspapers didn’t even make the top five. The top five visited news websites for these users were, in order: BBC News (34%), Google News (17%), Sky News (6%), Yahoo! (5%), and MSN (5%).” (Full version of the story, revealing a strong preference for print, here).

What’s the common denominator among those five sites? They’re either aggregators or broadcasters. So they have immediacy and range (or breadth).

Much of the logic behind newspapers putting paywalls round part or all of their content makes sense. But one of the flaws in the argument is they can’t quite compete on either. However excellent the journalism in the Financial Times, the Times or the Sunday Times can they be seen as valuable enough to pay for – when these results seem to give a clear guide what people actually opt for when wielding a mouse?

Come to think of it, the problem for established newspaper titles is broader than just paywalls. A global online news market has been taking shape in the past fifteen years. Do the rules of that new game dictate that to survive and prosper a brand must either be huge (like those above) or niche? But definitely not anywhere in between.

The newspapers will of course reply that Yahoo! and Google News are free-riding as profitable aggregators on the original content generated by the papers and that the broadcasters have the advantage of vast, built-in reach with with which to promote their sites. But that is only to underline that news reporting has been decoupled from the publishing profit engine that kept news journalism going for its first couple of centuries.

This argument is always moving. Google has made a radical switch away from its earlier corporate indifference to the fate of newspapers and is actively being seen to help news reporting and publication (more on that here). MSN is moving beyond being an aggregator with a London newsroom of sixty editors. Not much original reporting yet (save cars and lifestyle), but maybe that’s next.

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