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June 25, 2008

Welcome to The Great Unbundling, Mr Rusbridger

By Peter Kirwan MM blog

Scientists say that falling in love alters our brain chemistry, and therefore the way in which we perceive the world.

Presumably, it’s the same with losing.

Last week, the Mail Online overtook the Guardian and the Telegraph to become the UK’s most-trafficked national newspaper site.

Now, suddenly, the Guardian is suggesting that it’s becoming increasingly “anachronistic” to compare ABCe data for newspaper websites.

Yes indeed. That’s because the Mail’s great surge in online visitors hasn’t been generated by what Mike Butcher, the author of the piece, would call “news”.

No — it’s all down to Keira Knightley’s “razor sharp” collarbone and pictures of an emaciated and distressed Amy Winehouse wandering around the streets of London in the small hours dressed only in her underwear.

Butcher argues for a purist view. He accuses the Mail Online of playing fast and loose with link bait (which is patently true).

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Sites like the Mail Online and The Sun — with its three lane pile-up of tits, bingo and fantasy football — aren’t really news sites at all, he argues. They have more in common with the US celebrity site

As for The Guardian, well, it seems tempted to pick up its toys and walk away. Now that the Mail Online has bested it, Butcher tells us that: . . will be more interested in how it is faring against the Huffington Post, a liberal US blog network, than comparing itself to other domestic newspapers.

Of course, tinkering with competitive sets in the wake of commercial defeat has a long and venerable history within sales organizations. It goes on everywhere, and it’s symptomatic of denial.

Commercially, no-one will be fooled. That’s because the web’s animating force is all centripetal, not centrifugal. Competitive sets are getting bigger, not smaller.

In terms of advertising revenues, the Guardian must compete directly with the Mail Online as well as Google, MSN and Yahoo — and a host of others.

In the absence of pornography, violence and racism, the quality of news coverage that brings in the punters simply doesn’t matter to advertisers.

That said, Butcher’s piece does point to something important.

The Mail Online’s successful experiments with link bait are a prime example of what the author Nick Carr calls the “unbundling” of news content.

No longer do we have to pay a set fee to buy a newspaper that contains a mix of highbrow and lowbrow content.

Zooming in from Google in 0.25 seconds, we can get our fix of “+keira +knightly +baftas” and exit just as rapidly as we arrived, leaving any “serious” content undisturbed.

The real question for editors at the Guardian and the Telegraph is how to preserve resources for the news content that Rupert Murdoch calls “boring”. They need to do this in a digital world where 20%-30% annualized growth is a minimum requirement.

The pressure to unbundle, to encourage links with bait, is enormous. It can only grow. For better or worse, it will influence news agendas.

If mentally cordoning off a bit of cyberspace and labeling it “serious news sites only” helps editors to manage the pressures, fair enough.

But let’s not pretend that this will influence the ad market.

Because it won’t.

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