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How Birmingham Live became the biggest online local newsbrand in Britain

Birmingham Live editor in chief Graeme Brown says the site's ad-funded model is working.

By Bron Maher

Birmingham Live may be the largest regional newsbrand by total UK monthly online audience size (beating even the Evening Standard) but editor-in-chief Graeme Brown told Press Gazette that is not a metric they focus on.

Brown said coverage decisions at the title, which is the digital sister to the daily Birmingham Mail and weekly Birmingham Post newspapers, are driven mainly by the interests of the “loyal audience”.

“So as an example,” he said, “if we start live blogging two court cases, and one court case does 20,000 page views in the first day and other one does 5,000 — if those 5,000 are all loyal, that’s the one we will stick to.”

Birmingham Live editor: West Midlands coverage organically brings audiences from elsewhere

In the era of mass traffic there has been a trend toward local and regional sites in the UK publishing less locally-focused content with a view to attracting as wide an audience as possible. But Brown said focusing on the interests of West Midlands readers has “organically” driven mass traffic from outside the region.

“11 million people read us last month, so most of them aren’t from the West Midlands,” he said. (The population of the West Midlands is about three million.)

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“However, most of those 11 million people only visit us once or twice. You look at the people who visit us 20 times a week — in the app there are people who are coming and reading 50-plus articles a week — they’re all very, very local.”

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Brown said Birmingham made for “quite a good microcosm of the UK more widely”. For example, he said, Birmingham has a large number of benefits claimants and so the site has developed good authority with Google for writing about the issues they face.

“We’ve got a reporter, David Bentley, who is just exceptional at writing about the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions]. Often the words ‘David Bentley’ are better-searched than the words ‘Birmingham news’. So we’re recognised as an authority in that area. Obviously, by its nature, people who have an interest in the DWP will often be more than just people in Birmingham.”

For similar reasons, all the articles Bentley has written aimed at Birmingham’s large Muslim population about prayer times mean he is regarded by Google as an expert on Ramadan.

In the last Press Gazette top 50 UK news websites ranking, Birmingham Live was up 7% year on year to 11m UK visitors, according to Ipsos iris. However, according to data from Sistrix, the site has seen a 15% decline in visibility on Google search results since the search engine’s major algorithm update in March.

According to Similarweb, 44.5% of Birmingham Live traffic come via search in the last three months, 33% direct and 17% from social.

'I think we've become really good at tailoring content' to different platforms

As well as its coverage focus choices, Brown attributed Birmingham Live’s success reaching a wide audience to taking different approaches to each platforms

“I think we've become really good at tailoring content to the specific audience,” he said.

Brown contrasted this approach to what he said he had seen when he was starting out in print journalism, when he said the audience was treated more as “one homogeneous group”.

“We recognise that our readers on Google Discover are different to our readers on Whatsapp, and I think we've become really good at tailoring the content to them.”

He likened posting a story to Birmingham Live’s Whatsapp Community to creating a newspaper billboard. Those readers, he said, “have probably got lots of unread things, they're very local, they’re kind of pushed for time.

“I think the respect we’ll show our Whatsapp readers is: we're not going to tell you something unless you really need to know it - there's a massive fire, or a big crime, or roads closed, etcetera.”

Whatsapp Communities, unlike Whatsapp Channels, enable publishers to post messages directly into readers' message feed.

A Google Discover reader (the news aggregation feed which appears on most Android smartphones), on the other hand, “is someone who is filling time. There’s a lot more lifestyle content, it’s longer reads…

“If we only did Whatsapp, our audience would be very local, but they wouldn't read more than two paragraphs very often. If we only did Google Discover our audience in Aberdeen might become bigger than our audience in Birmingham.”

Programmatic ads continue to fund Birmingham Live, but it's experimenting with a paid newsletter

Despite Birmingham Live’s success attracting the disappearing casual audience, Brown said he saw focusing on the “200,000 people who come back 16 times a month” as the best route to creating a business model “that's not all just built on sand”.

He said programmatic advertising remains “the biggest driver of digital income” at the site. But even without a focus on direct-bought advertising, Brown said that by catering to Birmingham Live’s loyal readers, “we're able to create sustainable advertisers who we know more about and can serve better”.

For now this will continue to be the main way the site generates revenue. Brown told Press Gazette: “We want news to be free. The benefit that we have in Birmingham Live that might not be the case for all other regional titles is it’s such a big audience. There's two and a half million people in the West Midlands, and frankly, national publishers aren't very interested in it.” 

He said the publication’s audience grew when Birmingham Council declared bankruptcy: “no one else cared about it… our loyal audience went up, because they have nowhere else to go”.

But the site is beginning to look at subscription income. In early April it launched Inside Birmingham, a paid newsletter written by Birmingham Live politics and people editor Jane Haynes. Brown said the effort was an attempt “to try and get a feel for - if we write this stuff for people to love and people to value, are they prepared to pay for it?”

Hosted on Substack and charging £5 a month (or £40 annually), the newsletter follows similar Reach efforts in Wales to test paid newsletters written by prominent reporters. It also follows the December launch of the Birmingham Dispatch, an upmarket Substack-based publication launched by Mill Media to cover the city.

But Brown said of the new title: “I don't see it as a competitor, and in fact, I think it's potentially beneficial. If we can get people paying for news in Birmingham, that's a good thing for Birmingham Live… If they can succeed, it creates a platform that we can succeed in, so I wish them all the best.”

He added: “I don't think our business model is broken in Birmingham. I think there's a lot of people, there's a lot of eyes that we can get in front of things, and for now it's working.

“But we would want to be in a place where, if the market moves that way, we write enough stuff that people love and value that we can ask them to pay for things and, again, we'll have a better feeling for that in six months’ time when Jane’s email beds in.”

Another competitor Brown is relaxed about is the BBC, whose local pivot away from radio and into digital news production has rankled several regional news bosses.

But Brown said: “The BBC has always been there. They’re a competitor of sorts — we've been out at a big fire today and the BBC’ll report on it. If the BBC beat us to that and tell the story better than we do, the learning from that is that we need to be better.

“The BBC has stepped up — they’ve had more people reporting [and] now we see them more in our world, but I just see that as a kind of challenge. And frankly, there's every reason to think that we are still capable of being faster and objectively better than their reporting because of the way that we work. We're set up to deliver our priorities.

“So I see them as a noisier neighbour than they were previously, but it's not something that keeps me awake at night.”

‘2023 was my worst year in journalism’

Birmingham Live employs approximately 30 journalists — fewer than it did before three rounds of cuts across Reach in 2023 collectively made more than 700 journalists redundant.

Brown said: “Much like everyone else, 2023 was my worst year in journalism. But I think the view would be that it sets us up in a place where we can look to be sustainable. I do like the idea of being sustainable — I would like a bigger newsroom, but I don't want a newsroom that can't afford to pay for itself.

“I think we've kind of done that work last year. I think the early quarterly figures for Reach look good, and I think Birmingham will be reflected in that. So it was difficult.”

Brown said Birmingham Live reporters are not given page targets or a minimum number of articles to write in a day, but said that content editors are expected to hit targets across the output they oversee.

He added that “the skill set of a modern reporter is so high”. 

“When our reporter is going out to a big fire, they're not thinking about how this would best serve an Instagram Reels video. But because, integral to it, they know if you don't take any video our social media editor will be on your case about it, or they know if you write a headline that hasn't got any SEO terms in it my executive editor is gonna be on your case about that, it's become just an integral part…

“I'll see [younger reporters] getting criticised by my former journalists on Twitter, and I think — you just couldn't lace their boots. They're doing the job that you were doing, at a greater volume, to more people and with a kind of complexity that you would never have been able to dream up at that time.”

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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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