There is a rumour sweeping newsrooms that The Times will invest £20m in timesonline.co.uk as it endeavours to turn the site into the UK's largest online news portal. It sounds like an unrealistically large amount, but while Times Newspapers says the rumour is ‘way off' the true figure, it does not deny there are big changes planned, and nor does it feel it has to silence any whispers.
In fact, having recently hired its first multimedia editor - Matt Walsh, the former deputy editor of the ITV News Channel - and announced that the site will soon be streaming content from Sky News, such gossip is positively
music to its ears.
News and rumour about The Times is just the latest development in the readership battle between the main online news providers. With print readership generally down, the fight for the web is hotting up.
The first shots were fired in September when telegraph.co.uk launched a ten-page multimedia newspaper - Telegraph pm. Available as a PDF file on the site, it can be printed and read by commuters on their way home. It was joined just days later by The Guardian's environment news site, with sections devoted to transport, climate change, conservation, ethical shopping and energy use, and full interactivity whereby readers can nominate their best campaigns of the week.
The Sun Online has also just been through its biggest redesign since its debut in 2002, to include more microsites and video material (it was the first paper website to launch an online video news service in 2005).
Technological improvement is one explanation for these changes. But according to at least one internet
monitor, Alexa, readership of news sites, like their print counterparts, has fallen (see below). Newspapers want more interactivity, and more to offer readers in a bid to recover audience share. It means they will increasingly need PROs' help to improve their online presence. But have they left it too late?
The Guardian, whose website has more than 13 million monthly users, is in the throes of launching a major arts project that will aim to become the centre of analysis and debate around creative matters in Britain.
This is just one of many major developments in the pipeline that will ultimately transform Guardian Unlimited over the next 12 months. Emily Bell, director of digital content at Guardian Newspapers, says she hopes PROs will choose to support the project. ‘The readership war is about to really get under way,' she says. ‘The Guardian's aim - through Guardian Unlimited - is to be the UK's biggest online newspaper. We have accepted that we can't just attack this in traditional journalistic ways. We have to think about services. We are looking for radical transformation.'
But for Bell and her rivals, getting stories from PROs is often tough. Many PR people it seems are overlooking the mainstream news outlets in favour of more popular portals. ‘The most important news sites for the PR industry to target are the aggregator sites,' says Tim Gibbon, director and founder of Elemental Communications.
They include NewsNow.co.uk, Moreover.com, Webfetch.com, MSN, Yahoo! and Ask.com. He explains that while these sites aggregate content from news portals, users prefer them for their convenience: ‘Audiences are looking for a broad range of news sources at one digestible point. Aggregator sites are attracting a lot of new readers. The web is such a massive beast to cover and these resources do it for readers.'
Slow to change
The major newspapers are evolving too slowly - so says Romina Rosado, managing director (Europe) of The News Market, which provides PR-generated video content to news websites: ‘We researched the amount of video content being created by PROs for newspaper websites. Although the figure has grown by five per cent - to 40 per cent of all website requests - in the past year, newspapers have not acted quickly enough.
Seventy-three per cent said they still expect to add more video to their sites. All the newspapers are adopting a me-too approach by having all these services, but they are losing readers and struggling to find a way to exist online.'
So, what type of content do the news sites need to improve their presence? Should they focus on their self-generated material, or that created by PROs and ‘citizen journalists'? Rosado urges PR people to try and force the issue by anticipating the needs of newspapers.
Meanwhile, Anne Spackman, editor-in-chief of Timesonline, which has 8.9 million monthly users, admits that the site is still ‘learning to behave differently' to its newspaper version, and says PROs should be aware that a ‘raft of innovations' will soon be launched. ‘Newspapers with strong brands such as ours have traditionally been citadels of information,' says Spackman. ‘We're starting to filter the best information from other sites and daring to let down the drawbridge and allow our readers in.'
Until now, newspaper websites have been regarded as the Cinderellas of news publishing - relatively ignored in favour of their print counterparts. But the influx of investment is likely to change not only the relationship between brands and readers, but also the relationship between the sites and their print sisters.
The Sun Online editor Pete Picton says one of the biggest challenges for the site - and one he believes is crucial to driving readership and loyalty - is to develop an identity that is separate from The Sun newspaper.
‘Online news is still in its developmental stage,' says Picton. ‘One thing it doesn't do well at the moment is break news stories. But that's what we must aim for in the future.'
When that happens, the PR industry will clearly have to rethink how it approaches online news outlets. As has always been argued by online news providers, PROs will require a new strategy for pitching stories.
Bell, who became editor of MediaGuardian.co.uk in 2000, says online newspapers tend to make the same mistakes, and her advice is vital reading for PR practitioners: ‘The biggest mistake online newspapers make is in thinking like their printed sibling - what I call "ink-think". You have to recognise that web users are substantially different to readers of the paper - even if they are the same person.
‘We have to carry out in-depth research into the behaviour of the people who use online news sites. We have to constantly think of the users and the way in which they use the format.'
Bell uses the example of a PR executive offering a top London chef for a 30-minute interview to a news website. ‘Why would we take it? We'd say "That's no use to us. Go and talk to the newspaper".' She points out that ten three-minute videos of the chef preparing attractive recipes would be ideal content for the website.
According to Johnson King MD Mike King, PROs should seek to work with websites that think of themselves as more like TV channels than basic news outlets. ‘Nowadays, there is tremendous pressure on websites to be first with the news and to constantly offer fresh information because their lifeblood is about bringing readers back. For that reason, online news provision is more like TV than a paper-based news medium,' he says.
Doubts about video
Intriguingly, not all of the main news sites are convinced about video. The Economist has already had one unsuccessful foray into new media with its ‘Economist TV' product.
And while both The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times plan to add more video online, they are
unclear about what they want - a fact that will not endear them to PROs. ‘We're asking ourselves, "What does FT journalism look like with video and audio?",' says James Montgomery, the editor of FT.com.
Meanwhile, professor Adrian Monck, head of journalism and publishing at City University, says the PR industry will be ‘anxiously waiting to see how the print media's journalism will morph into "telly"'.
The Telegraph Group has embraced this concept more than most, through its partnership with ITN, for example, to add video content to its online edition. Speaking at a recent News Market debate on ‘The multiplicity of online news sources', Edward Roussel, online editorial director at telegraph.co.uk, said the site plans to provide ‘more of it [video content]'. But he emphasised the problem faced by many newspapers: ‘We have to ask, "What are we good at? What have we got to say?".'
While most of the major newspapers are still trying to work out the role that reader feedback should play (Roussel says Telegraph.co.uk can get 200 to 250 posts in response to a particular article, but has found it an enormous challenge to act as moderator), James Warren, director of web relations at Weber Shandwick, says non-newspaper sites are pulling away in this respect.
‘The penny has only just dropped with mainstream media that they can no longer claim to know what the
public are thinking. The likes of Bebo and blog sites, of course, are ahead of the game in terms of feedback, with PROs heavily reaching out to them. Only the BBC is increasingly inviting people to comment on stories and getting correspondents to write blogs,' Warren explains.
There is no doubt that the next 12 months will see competition intensify between news sites. PR professionals will have to decide which portals are worth targeting on behalf of clients. As Ft.com's Montgomery says, newspapers are simply reacting to renewed confidence in the internet. ‘It is the second coming of the internet. Nearly every newspaper company you can think of is putting digital at the heart of its strategic planning.'
Read on for our rundown of six major online news providers.
How sites are ranked
The six websites are ranked by Alexa.com among the top 100 portals in the UK based on traffic. All statistics were gathered by Alexa from millions of web users who downloaded the Alexa Toolbar, which monitors online activity.
The statistics allowed Alexa to highlight user trends, determine website reach, and plot a pattern of users' online news viewing.
Page views per million indicate the fraction, for a particular site, of all the page views by toolbar users. For example, if yahoo.com has 70,000 page views per million, seven per cent of all page views by users were of yahoo.com.
Reach is the number of site users, expressed as the percentage of all internet users. So if yahoo.com has a reach of 28 per cent, one could extrapolate that of one million users, 280,000 of them visit yahoo.com.
WHAT'S HAPPENING WITH THE MAIN NEWS SITES?
BBC News Ticker rank: 5
Viewing trends (in last year) Peaking at around 2,700 page views per million in February, declining to 1,800 page views per million by the end of September.
Reach A peak of 30,000 per million in February, before a steady decline to 22,000 in September.
What other sites do its users visit? Sky, Beeb.com, BBC America, ITV Television, Five, Channel 4 News, Telegraph.co.uk, CNN, Guardian Unlimited and ITN.
How is the site driving user numbers? ‘The BBC has a pedigree in news analysis, so we're contextualising the news with concise backgrounds to stories,' says Steve Herrmann, editor of BBC News Interactive.
What opportunities exist for PROs? ‘Journalists and editors are always looking for a solid news line,' says Herrmann.
Guardian.co.uk rank: 24
Viewing trends (in last year) A decline towards 90 daily page views per million in December 2005 was sharply counteracted by the end of January when a 12-month peak was reached at 200. This declined steadily to 110 by the end of September.
Reach Peaked at over 5,000 per million at the end of January, remaining steady between 3,000 and 4,000 thereafter.
What other sites do its users visit? Radio Netherlands, One World News Service, Google News, Reuters World News, CNN, CBS News, BBC, ABCNews, Fox News Channel.
How is the site driving user numbers? ‘In coming months there will be significant changes to the Guardian Unlimited,' says director of digital content Emily Bell.
What opportunities exist for PROs? ‘It's about understanding the details of the digital audience,' Bell says.
The Times Online rank: 52
Viewing trends (in last year) A dip in December 2005 saw daily page views per million at 45, but peaked in February at 110, falling to 55 in September.
Reach Peaked at about 3,300 per million in February, declining steadily to 1,600 in September.
What other sites do its users visit? Internaational News Digest, News In Pictures, Gary Price's NewsCenter, Maps in the News, Yahoo News, Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition.
How is the site driving user numbers? Timesonline editor-in-chief Anne Spackman says: ‘More participation from our users, more interactivity, more creative use of materials.'
What opportunities exist for PROs? The latest opportunity is a new travel section powered by a search engine that tailor's travellers' requirements.
The Sun Online rank: 62
Viewing trends (in last year) Peaked in June with 130 page views per million, ending at 70 by the end of September.
Reach In mid-August, The Sun Online's daily reach peaked for the year at 2,000 per million. It was half this in September.
What other sites do its users visit? Messenger Newspapers, Daily Star, The Observer, Daily Telegraph, Washington Post, New York Times, Sunday Times, FT, Daily Punt, Observer.
How is the site driving user numbers? ‘We've just refreshed the site,' says The Sun Online editor Pete Picton. ‘Unlike many sites, we've focused on being user-friendly rather than just focusing on functionality.'
What opportunities exist for PROs? ‘We have 70 per cent of our own content [as opposed to drawing content from The Sun newspaper].'
CNN.com rank: 78
Viewing trends (in last year) Peaked at almost 1,800 daily page views per million in early January and again in February. This declined to 1,100 in September.
Reach Peaked at 32,000 per million in late January, but has declined to 18,000 in September.
What other sites do its users visit? Fox News Channel, Yahoo News, CBS News, ABC News, Google News, CBC News, The Associated Press, Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, 1st Headlines.
How is the site driving user numbers? CNN International interactive senior editor Dylan Reynolds says: ‘User-generated content is pivotal.'
What opportunities exist for PROs? ‘PROs need to bear in mind the fact that CNN.com has a truly international audience,' says Reynolds.
Telegraph.co.uk rank: 91
Viewing trends (in last year) Daily page views per million dropped dramatically to below 35 from almost 60 at the end of December. Declined to 35 in September.
Reach Ended at 1,000 in September after peaking at almost 2,200 at the end of January.
What other sites do its users visit? FT, Daily Mirror, MegaStar, Daily Express, Times online, Sunday Mirror, Independent, Guardian Unlimited, Die Welt, Scotsman.com, Sunday People, Daily Star, Daily Mail, Observer, News of the World, New York Times, Washington Post, Le Monde, CNN, BBC News.
How is the site driving user numbers? Telegraph.co.uk declined to comment for this piece.
What opportunities exist for PROs? Telegraph.co.uk declined to comment.
BLOG SITES TO TARGET
Weber Shandwick director of web relations James Warren says encouraging bloggers to become independent advocates of a brand or product has a disproportionately positive result. For consumer technology, here commends engadget.com, gizmodo.com, techdigest.tv (and its female-oriented sister site shinyshiny.tv) as outlets that reach the movers and shakers in their respected arenas.
Warren adds: ‘Targets needn't be restricted to the type of product or service you're promoting - blogs can be great vehicles to reach specific audiences.'
He highlights blogher.org as a co-operative of women bloggers ideal for pitching female-oriented issues, while pickledpolitics.com is a blog that has proven popular among ethnic minorities as a forum for debate.