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April 29, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:14am

Traffic to UK local news websites surged in 2020 – but digital revenue plummeted

By Aisha Majid

New analysis from Press Gazette shows that traffic to local news websites in the UK surged last year, with Reach-owned Manchester Evening News leading the way.

But digital revenue to local news brands, as reported by AA/WARC, fell 23.3% to £183.3m in 2020. Digital advertising grew overall last year in the UK, but most of the growth went to Google and Facebook – which together made more than £11bn.

Comparing SimilarWeb data on UK traffic to the 60 biggest local and regional news sites (based on average monthly visits) with traffic to the leading the top 60 news sites excluding regional and local names, we found that local sites increased by 38%  from February to March 2020.

Visits to the biggest national and international news sites, on the other hand, were up by 33% in the same period.

The chart below starts both national and regional sites at an index figure of 100 in January 2019 and charts their relative change.

Overall, the top local news sites in our database saw 44% more visits in 2020 than in 2019, compared to 20% growth for the top national and international news sites in the UK.

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Further analysis of the traffic growth for all 430 local news sites in our database shows that visits have increased steadily since January 2019, the earliest available data we have from SimilarWeb.

Our database of sites includes the biggest names as well as a broad selection of smaller and independent players.

Of all the sites in our database, the most visited during the pandemic period – from March 2020 to the present date – has been the Manchester Evening News website, which received an average of 26m UK visits each month, according to SimilarWeb. Completing our top five were the websites of four other Reach titles: the Liverpool Echo, Wales Online, Birmingham Mail, and Newcastle’s Chronicle Live.

And it was Reach overall that led the way among leading UK regional news publishers. Based on an analysis of the 100 top local sites, Reach’s titles in this selection racked up a combined 172m visits in March 2021, more than twice the number of Newsquest which followed with 62m visits.

However, the boost in traffic has not translated into advertising revenue for UK local news websites.

Data from the Advertising Association/WARC revealed today  that local and regional media advertising spend has continued to fall from a high of £3.1bn in 2004 to a record low (since 1982 when AA/WARC began tracking this data) of £0.5bn last year.

According to AA/WARC UK regional news brand revenue fell 23.3% in 2020 to £183.2m. This compares with growth in the two categories dominated by Google and Facebook with online display: up 10.4% to £7.07bn in 2020 and search advertising up 7.1% to £8.4bn.

Alice Pickthall of Enders Analysis says the impact, while felt across the local and regional news industry, has been more pronounced for smaller publishers.

“There’s a bit of differentiation between the large players and effectively the long tail of smaller groups or independents who have felt the effects of the pandemic differently,” she says. “All players, but pretty much every local site bar a small number of exceptions, run digital advertising and so even though traffic went up – and in some cases went up kind of substantially – the flow-through of digital ad revenue was was not as strong as it would have been in pre-pandemic times.”

According to Reach’s 2020 annual report, the regional giant lost 70% of SME advertisers in April 2020 alone, something which Pickthall says would have been reflected across the industry quite strongly.

Yet, while bigger publishers have managed to restructure their businesses to weather the pandemic, this has been more difficult for smaller publishers who have had fewer options available to them.

“In the tail it’s likely that there would be a greater reliance on SME advertising and that means that when those businesses were forced to close and when that marketing spend was poor they will have been more affected and less able to restructure costs, which is what the large groups have been able to do,” she says.

There were, however “no real winners last year”, she adds. “Every regional house had staff losses and huge costs… It was a pretty bad year for the industry as a whole.”

While print remains a large driver of revenue for local titles with much of the 2020 losses for regional media concentrated in the print sector, publishers with strong digital properties have been more resilient, she says.

Reach for example has grown its digital revenue by 20.4% so far in 2021 following a record year-on-year increase of 26% in the last quarter of 2020, according to its full-year results.

Although ad spend in print still makes up some 61% of the total regional and local media ad spend, its share has fallen dramatically in the past decade.

Yet, with ad revenues – whether digital or print – continuing to fall overall, publishers who have moved away from a business model that relies on advertising to generate income directly from readers are also better off, says Pickthall.

Although bigger newsbrands have drawn the highest proportion of the increasing number of people paying for news, the move to paid-for news within the local and regional industry is encouraging, she says.

“The really positive sign is that it’s something that’s been at least experimented with by publishers, which is a huge step forward from two years ago.”

Pickthall cautions, however, that it’s still too soon to say whose strategy will pay off.

“For almost any kind of regional player it’s still very early days, so it’s hard to tell in terms of who’s effectively monetising the best,” she says.

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