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British papers' transatlantic readership figures are impressive – but how to make money out of the States is less certain.

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
  • 21 april 2011

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This article titled “America: Fleet Street’s new land of opportunity” was written by Peter Preston, for The Observer on Saturday 16th April 2011 23.06 UTC

The headline really writes itself: “The Brits are Coming.” It’s an Oscars night boast translated for a multimedia world. It means that BBC World News America is now available on public broadcasting stations all over the US (with more cash going in to drive up BBC.com’s monthly online visiting figures over 15m). It means that the Guardian has dispatched a high-powered editorial and finance team to New York to build digital awareness, news coverage and cash flow on an 10.75m comScore estimate of monthly American visitors to guardian.co.uk.

And it means that Martin Clarke, Mail Online’s publisher, is already spending half his time in the States, as he watches newly recruited journalists churn out American stories for the US home page. Where, long ago, the FT dared to tread – and the Economist scored 850,000 or so subscribers – other British invaders are pouring in.

Prospects? Uncertain, of course: as with everything else in an internet realm where statistics contort and confuse. But let’s, at an educated guess, put the Mail’s monthly unique browser figures, as recorded by ABCe, at nearly 66m in all markets – and its unique visitor figures in the States, as assessed by comScore, at around 16.5m. These are big numbers, expanding fast. Not as big as the Huffington Post, or the New York Times. But if the Timess famous paywall chokes off traffic levels, then Mail Online could well overtake it very soon.

Both the Mail and the Guardian are apostles of free news on the net, reporting without walls; and they’re UK leaders at the numbers game. Perhaps the Guardian, with 23.7m unique browsers outside Britain, and nearly 40m in all, can’t quite keep up with Mail growth – but it, too, is increasing healthily (up 27% of total unique browsers in a year) and it, too, has a walled New York Times in its sights.

“I’m not suggesting that the Guardian is not a good paper. It is a very good newspaper… but it does not speak to the American experience,” said a defensive Arthur Sulzberger Jr, the supreme leader of the Times, the other day. He’s seen a threat building. He knows that, with net growth slowing in Britain, the US market still has juice left to tap. He can feel opportunity knocking for British invaders who have grown naturally in America in recent years – burgeoning, in the Mail’s case, almost accidentally to begin with, finding a market for celebrity news that works on both sides of the Atlantic and making swift tracks.

But here, perhaps, is the crucial rub. BBC America wins garlands, if not great wads of cash, because (as one industry blogger says) it is seen as “more truthful, honest and less biased than any of our domestic news sources”. Clarke’s Mail Online, with low costs and tight staffing, majors on hard news and celebrity gossip. It’s not an integrated version of the Daily Mail (except, perhaps, in spirit). Indeed, “it’s not like a newspaper at all”, as one of its senior executives observes. It is what it is, and nothing it does washes back into the print product.

The print and digital Guardian is different, because it is far more integrated – and complex. It will have to decide whether America wants extra American news – or something more simply international that keeps its UK flavour. And, of course, there’s a danger that the print and home online editions will catch an alien “experience” coming the other way. How many tales about Glenn Beck or Charlie Sheen for UK readers equal a case of fuzzy focus?

But hey! It’s an adventure and something new, building on audience figures that swelled from natural demand. Of course there are problems, challenges, doubts, sorrows. And of course prospective advertising riches aren’t huge, because net ad rates are low. But who wants to play Cassandra as the future clicks in? Ambition is a two-way street.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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