UK media innovation: Why US publishers look enviously across the Atlantic

A view from the US on how UK has become hot bed of news media innovation

Heidi Legg, lead research fellow at the Future of Media Project at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, here argues that the UK is turning into a hotspot for media innovation. She calls on the American media industry to sit up and take notice.

Silicon Valley in California spawned the tech industry. Cambridge Kendall Square in Massachusetts launched the biotech era. And, after a 25-year decline for the news industry, there are shoots of hope sprouting from across the pond.

Once home to the newspaper barons of Fleet Street at the dawn of the industrial revolution, the UK apparently wants its media crown back.

Scrappy entrepreneurs are pioneering the future of independent media in Great Britain, and they come from a storied line of British media innovators.

Lords Thomson and Beaverbrook were each born into modest Canadian families in the late 1800s. They were hungry with ambition.

Unlike their contemporaries in America – namely William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who inherited family money and newspapers – Thomson, the son of a barber, began by selling radios in northern Ontario. Beaverbrook, born into a Presbyterian ministry family in the hinterland of New Brunswick, launched his first newspaper at the age of 13, becoming a millionaire by 30.

Today, that same spirit is afoot from the moors of Scotland to the white cliffs of Dover. Tiny startups with big ideas are popping up.

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Axate facilitates digital payments for casual newsreaders. Bubblr matches newsreaders with small and medium-sized local businesses that want to fund local news, disrupting how users, publishers, and businesses exchange value and currency digitally.

There is a sort of frisson to it all compared to the platform woes over here.

We also see veteran British news players buying large newspaper chains and investing in the newsrooms for a first-party data ad strategy, something not happening stateside.

Last year, David Montgomery acquired the Scotsman and dozens of other regional and local papers in the former Johnston Press stable  for £10.2m to rebuild local news in a digital era.

Even niche titles are frothy. Future Media recently agreed to buy Dennis Publishing, owner of The Week magazine, for £300m and has been on a five-year acquisition run with over 160 titles now under its tent.

The only US player following a model similar to Future is Red Ventures, owner of CNET, Gamespot, the Points Guy, and other titles.

With the end of third-party tracking, niche publications play nicely in a move to first-party content for monetisation. First-party data paves a new revenue path for publishers, who can now accrue as much preferential data as Facebook and Google have long held on each of us and sell against it for advertisers.

“News movements” are also a thing.

Two-year-old Tortoise is pioneering “slow news” to cut through the deluge and offer an intelligent summary in just a few stories at £80 a year. Poynter reported they had 85,000 paid subscribers last March.

Meanwhile, former WSJ and Dow Jones chief Will Lewis moved home to launch the News Movement to fight disinformation and deliver trustworthy information to mass audiences on social media – where the Reuters Institute at Oxford reported under 35s are 60% more likely to get their news.

The entrepreneurial energy in British media is palpable.

UK media reaches a global English-speaking market and there are international subscriptions to be had.

According to Press Gazette, the BBC has the highest digital traffic of any English-language news site in the world with 1.1bn website visits in September 2021. Entrepreneurs see that as a market opportunity.

Among paywalled independent news media in the UK no-one yet has more than 1m subscribers. It’s early days.

In America, by contrast, the focus over the past five years has been on seeding nonprofits, with 240 emerging nonprofit news startups (and counting) funded by Google, Facebook, and philanthropists (who often made their money in tech).

These nonprofits are often centered on narrow beats and are sometimes politically aligned. The result? US media startups solving for revenue – rather than politics – often can’t get liftoff because every venture capitalist wants a unicorn and the rest of the market prefers charities.

Commercial journalism funding is left to the billionaires who self-fund like Jeff Bezos (the Washington Post), or Linda and John Henry (the Boston Globe)These are some of our favorite models, but we need more of them.

Sure, the New York Times is innovating with its 8m paid subscribers, while Jeff Bezos is innovating the tech backbone of news with the Washington Post’s Zeus advertising platform to compete against Google and Facebook.

But the UK is calling.

The NYT is bolstering its own UK footprint now, counting one million international subscribers and a burgeoning London newsroom with 70 editorial staff, now rivaling smaller UK national titles. The Washington Post is also building out in London.

Multi-million dollar donation rounds from Google and Facebook for nonprofit news and disinformation studies dominate stateside. But these are a stopgap.

Independent media needs a self-sustaining revenue model. A vibrant independent media has the best chance of pushing back on the platforms and curbing misinformation.

There seems to be little investment appetite in the US for apolitical media startups allergic to partisan rancor. This is a mistake.

Axate founder Dominic Young, a former veteran of  News Corp, told us: “I think a consumer media marketplace can play a big role in mitigating mis- and disinformation.

“The simple act of choosing to pay a known entity for their content can disarm the weaponisation of algorithms and pseudonymous accounts.

“I have always thought that Axate can serve to accelerate evolution in the media marketplace, one effect being a natural pressure to push back against the perverse incentives which make disinformation so prominent right now.”

Running quarterback for the news industry are British regulators pressing hard to regulate platforms by introducing an Online Safety Bill this year that challenges Section 230. The bill would impose a so-called “duty of care” to users of platforms, like Google and Facebook, with the power to impose big fines if they fail, according to Politico.

Meanwhile, we in the US wait with bated breath to see if the Biden administration has the courage to rein in Big Tech to spawn news innovation.

Look across the pond, America. It’s time for US investors and their conquering platforms to invest in media entrepreneurs. Regulators aren’t moving fast enough. That leaves innovation as the fastest way to mitigate misinformation.

Heidi Legg is the lead research fellow at the Future of Media Project at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard. She has written extensively about the news media.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

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2 thoughts on “A view from the US on how UK has become hot bed of news media innovation”

  1. “In America, {sic} by contrast, the focus over the past five years has been on seeding nonprofits.” Really? Well-intentioned but misguided efforts to “save” newspapers through non-profit status notwithstanding, for-profit, digital-native news companies are popping up everywhere now in the United States. Axios Local is in 25 markets, 6amCity will be in 24 by the end of the year. Buzzfeed goes public via a SPAC next week. VoxMedia will turn a profit again this year. As for the claim that “There seems to be little investment appetite in the US for apolitical media startups…” the writer does not appear to understand the UK media market at all. After all, that is where positioning a media property according to political position originated. May I suggest a subscription to the Telegraph along with one to the Guardian? Try it. You’ll see.

  2. Thanks for this fine piece. May I offer a correction? In the 5th graf, you lump Pulitzer in with Hearst. While Hearst came from fabulous wealth, Pulitzer was a dirt-poor immigrant to America who made his own fortune.

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