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January 5, 2023

The British are coming: Fleet Street’s ‘digital landgrab’ on US news sector

More British news brands are targeting American growth.

By William Turvill

The United States has the largest and best resourced news industry in the English-speaking world. And yet, little by little over the past 15 years, Britain’s national newspapers have found a growing market for their brands among American news consumers.

A recent Press Gazette ranking of the largest news websites in the US included three UK news brands in the top 20. The BBC (9th), Mail Online (11th) and The Guardian (16th) ranked above The Wall Street Journal, Insider, Forbes, Politico, Reuters and Buzzfeed for website visits in November, according to the Similarweb data.

Soon, these established US news brands will face even more competition from British rivals.

The Sun, which launched The US Sun in 2020, was regularly ranked as one of Similarweb’s fastest-growing news websites in America last year. The Independent, similarly, has invested big in the US and has built up a major audience. The FT has a sizeable US workforce and last year said that around 20% of its 1m-plus digital subscribers are based in America.

This year Reach plans to hire 100 staff to launch US websites for the Mirror, Express and the Irish Star. The Telegraph is currently hiring for two senior positions – US homepage and app editor and senior US SEO editor – to help meet its “ambitious targets for audience and subscriber growth in the US”. And the BBC is also expanding its news presence across North America.

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Why US expansion has become a ‘necessity’ for Fleet Street

The UK’s national newspapers have for many years been contending with the damaging decline of print readership. And most are struggling to plug the gap with digital growth.

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Research produced by Enders Analysis last year helps explain why. Enders estimated that, in 2021, the average revenue per user (ARPU) of the Mail newspapers was 93 pence per day. The ARPU figure for a Mail Online user was 3 pence. For The Guardian, the ARPU for its newsstand reader was £1.78 per day and 71 pence for a print subscriber. Enders said The Guardian made an average of 3 pence per user per day in advertising.

These figures help explain why the growth of the UK's national news websites is struggling to compensate for years of print decline.

Enders Analysis data for The New York Times, meanwhile, shows why America is a desirable market for expansion. The New York Times' average digital reader generated daily ad revenues of 8 cents (or approximately 7 pence) in 2021 – not including income from digital subscriptions.

“Digital advertising is more valuable in the US,” explained Abi Watson, a media analyst at Enders Analysis. “The US is much richer.” Additionally, because the dollar has grown against the pound in recent years, American revenues have become more valuable to UK companies.

As well as offering more advertising revenue per user, the United States is also appealing to British publishers because of the size of its potential audience.

“Part of it is a numbers thing,” Watson added. “There are not going to be enough people that you are going to reach in the UK to offset the decline in newsstand sales, even if your business has subscriptions. [US expansion is] a necessity.”

David Clinch, a former CNN journalist and Storyful executive who now works as head of global partnerships for Mather Economics, suggested that UK publishers likely feel their home market is “too small”.

“There is the idea that there’s just more money to be had, or more opportunities to commercialise your product, in the United States than in the UK,” he said, adding that many publishers likely feel they are “reaching natural limits of their subscription business. And advertising is whimsical – it goes up and it goes down. And advertising rates in the UK are not as good as they are in the US.”

How Fleet Street established itself in the US

The Guardian first launched a US digital edition, then called Guardianamerica.com, in 2007. Mail Online founded its first US newsroom in Los Angeles in 2010 and opened its American headquarters in New York in 2012.

Both The Guardian and the Mail are now established as major sources of news in the US. Along with the BBC, they regularly rank among the top 20 most-visited news websites in the US.

By comparison, in Press Gazette's UK top 50, The New York Times is the highest-performing US-headquartered website. In November it ranked 26th in our chart, behind all national newspapers except the FT, as well as regional news brands including the Manchester Evening News, Liverpool Echo, Birmingham Live and Wales Online.

A Press Gazette analysis of the November website traffic (Similarweb data) of 12 British national newspapers – the Mail, Guardian, Sun, Independent, Telegraph, Mirror, Express, FT, Times, Metro, i and Daily Star – found that more than a quarter (26%) of clicks now come from the US, versus 42% from the UK.

By comparison, 3% of the NYT’s traffic comes from the UK, while British clicks account for 1.3% of Wall Street Journal traffic and 1.1% of Washington Post traffic.

Mather Economics' Clinch said that US publishers are today being forced to confront the British rivalry they face. “I must admit I didn’t take this stuff very seriously a few years ago,” he said. “When The Guardian and others had started to claim that they had made penetration in this market, I thought it was either fleeting or incidental.”

He added: “I’m sure there were very savvy people, looking at their numbers every month for the last few years, that have been frustrated by the fact that British tabloids are getting higher engagement rates in the US than they are. I’m sure there are some brands that have been very aware of this and very pissed off about it for a long time.”

The two British business models for US news

Clinch identified two business models that British publishers have deployed in the US.

“There’s the tabloid ‘flood the zone with content’ approach, which the Mail and Sun and others are doing,” he said. “And they’re doing it very seriously. They’re not just playing. They’re investing a lot of money. They’ve got a lot of staff. They’re taking a very scientific approach.

“And I think they’re on to something. Because tabloids don’t really exist in the same way here. They exist, but they’re thought of here as being not news, just gossip. So the idea that you can be a tabloid and newsy is an opportunity.”

Clinch believes the Mail, Sun and others have identified a subset of Americans who are interested in news but do not have a "serious relationship with the news industry – and don’t subscribe to a newspaper, for instance".

“There’s nothing to stop you," he added. "It’s like a landgrab, a digital landgrab. And because it’s advertising-driven for the most part, it’s just every man for himself basically. If you have good SEO, if you have good content, if you don’t really care about what your news brand is, then you can win in that space. Because it’s all about eyeballs and growth.”

The second model identified by Clinch, and adopted by The Guardian and BBC, is the “middle ground approach”. As identified by some US media leaders, there is a feeling among consumers that some American news brands are “partisan”. The Guardian, BBC and others feel this presents an opportunity for them.

“Even though The Guardian is very much seen as left in the UK, it is seen as relatively neutral here,” said Clinch, adding that it has marketed itself as being for “serious news consumers who want a neutral approach to the news”.

Who will be the British winners in America?

Clearly, many British news companies still view the United States as a land of untapped opportunity. Reach plans to launch American editions of the Mirror, Express and Irish Star in the coming months, while other Fleet Street titles are continuing to invest in US expansion.

But can all British news sites win big with US news traffic, and use it to boost ad revenues, find loyal readers and grow subscriptions?

The answer is: probably not. Particularly if US natives decide to fight fire with fire. Clinch said the New York Post is already learning lessons from the success of The Sun, its News Corp sister title. Politico, Bloomberg and others, meanwhile, have indicated a desire to compete in the “neutrality” space apparently targeted by The Guardian and BBC.

“So I think there is an opportunity,” Clinch added. “And the people who are doing it well are doing it very well. But, just with anything else, there are some natural limits that come up eventually.

“For instance, if you have every single British tabloid trying to play in the content space, they’re going to start eating into each other’s pie. There probably will only be one or two serious [British tabloid] winners here.

“And in the serious news neutral world, I think it’s the same. I don’t think there’s room for four, five, six different British newspapers to try and establish themselves as a meaningful news brand here in the US. I think that the winners, if there are winners, are probably going to be The Guardian and the BBC.”

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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