Digital dosh let's make lots of money

Andy Hart is clear about his vision for the future of news organisations.

"The challenge for traditional news groups over the next decade is how we organise ourselves to develop two key areas: to extend the brands'

relationship with consumers and to make sense of this ever more confusing world," he says.

Hart is managing director of Associated Northcliffe Digital, formed last month by merging the digital operations of the Daily Mail and General Trust's national and regional newspaper divisions.

Although the group includes companion websites for the Daily Mail, Evening Standard, Metro and the Northcliffe regionals, the major commercial focus of AN Digital's business are centred on a stable of classified advertising sites, or ‘vertical search engines' s Hart describes them.

The newly formed new-media division promptly added to its portfolio of specialist travel, property and job sites by splashing out £46.5m for two companies' dating and car sales websites last month.

"We're making a lot of money online, so it's possible," says Hart. "In terms of traditional editorial content sales, though, it's minimal."

Still, Hart isn't troubled by the challenge from the free advertising phenomenon, as long as branded, paid-for offerings can provide a better service for both buyers and sellers.

"I do not believe that free listings are a competitive offering in certain sectors. You go on Craigslist and look at a job listing, you get three or four lines with a job — to actually search in a sensible way is very difficult. There's a lack of richness of data and complete lack of professionalism."

Besides, he says, there is a simple offline parallel: "The free-classified print titles that have been in the market for the last 10 or 20 years haven't destroyed value in the traditional market."

But the fact that the most lucrative aspects of the new-media business do not depend on using journalists' words to attract eyeballs has not made them redundant, Hart is keen to stress.

In fact, he says, journalists are more important than ever because the aim is to extend an established media brand online where it will have to become a trusted source for filtering the din of information.

"We think that in this new world, the role of the newspaper brand and the role of the traditional editor becomes even move important," says Hart. "In a more confusing, competitive environment, readers will look towards brands they can trust."

For newspapers re-imaging themselves as multimedia brands, the internet is a just new vehicle for "connecting with the consumers of our brands and providing them with additional services", he says.

Perhaps, then, the new-media division's move from Associated's periphery to its very heart is about more than saving on office space. This month, AN Digital will move from the Charlotte Street offices to Northcliffe House. Journalists from the Daily Mail's website have been shoehorned into the newspaper's main newsroom.

Future journalists will be forced to work differently as they face a multitude of competitors vying for the role of the trusted guide to information.

"The reality is that there is a proliferation of brands: the traditional media brands in terms of television, radio or newspapers all come into competition in this new arena, as well as our traditional wire providers — things like Reuters thinking they can go build consumer brands — all the way through to online citizen journalism."

The decision by The Guardian, Times and Telegraph to begin publishing at least some "perishable" stories online before the print edition, Hart says, is an early indication of how print publications will have to adapt.

"I don't believe there is a vanilla answer to any of this," says Hart, stressing that it will be left up to individual editors to come up with the specific strategies most suited to their titles' markets.

"In our view the people that are closest to the readers are the publishers, the editors and the managers of those brands, and they will determine how we develop those consumer relationships. And they will take different strategies going forward."

One decision that AN Digital's editors will have to consider in their effort to become news consumers' natural starting points is how to acknowledge information provided by non-journalists and on competing websites.

"In this modern world, a journalistic news brand online is not only prepared to take content from their own in-house journalists and the wires, but also externally. And that's the one bit of blogging that is changing the journalistic process," says Hart.

Whether or not to link to competing sites is something editors will increasingly have to consider.

"Pointing to a referred article or a referred piece of information would be standard journalistic practice.

You get it every day in the newspapers with scoops."

"I'm not trying to draw an analogy between us and Google, but that is an example of a brand which, by getting people to the right type of information in a holistic way, keeps people coming back to the starting point on a regular basis."

Google itself is not a threat to the Daily Mail or indeed the Hull Daily Mail, says Hart — additional traffic will create regular users. The real concern is the BBC's local digital ambitions. Associated editorin- chief Paul Dacre is one of the signatories of a letter by commercial media bodies urging the Government to rein in the BBC's "digital empire" or force the corporation to make its digital ventures commercial.

If this happens, Hart sees rich seams of gold in them thar digital hills.

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