Audience data: The rise and fall of digital-native news publishers in the UK

Following high-profile job cuts in May this year at Vice Media, Buzzfeed and Quartz you could easily conclude that the digital content boom has gone bust.

Lost advertising as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in hundreds of jobs being shed and major editorial cutbacks.

Press Gazette analysis of Comscore data shows that traffic for the major pure-play digital publishers in the UK had levelled out prior to lockdown in March at around 87m visitors combined for the top sites.

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But not all digital native brands have fared equally. Many soldier on, while others such as Mic – which closed operations at the end of 2018 – have fallen by the wayside. A look at audience figures for some of the current most-read digital native sites in the UK shows a similarly diverse picture.

The Independent which went digital-only in 2016 leads the pure digital players with an average of 27m unique users per month in the third quarter of this year, followed by HuffPost and business and tech titles Insider Inc and the Verge.

Comparing pre-lockdown Q4 2019 with Q4 2017, only the Independent, US-owned tech website CNET and Vox have seen growth among the better-known pure digital players.

Another challenge facing digital news outfits has been the growing ad market dominance of two players: Google and Facebook. Together the two companies are grown their share of UK digital advertising, leaving publishers competing for a shrinking share of the pie.

Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram) and Google will together take nearly 80% of the estimated £15bn spent on digital advertising in the UK this year.

According to Nabeelah Shabbir, Conversation Editor at member-funded digital native website, The Correspondent – and the key to success forniche sites might be doing fewer things, better.

“The key formula, as we’re doing at The Correspondent is about community and niche beats,” she says.

Research Shabbir collaborated on for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has shown that some smaller, domestic digital native outlets such as French investigative site Mediapart and the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism have already been making this approach work for.

Mediapart, for instance, has seen year-on-year growth in its number of paid subscribers and revenue. At the end of 2019 the brand counted almost 170,000 subscribers – up from 10,000 a decade before.

While advertising remains the most important single source of revenue among digital-born news outlets, the French publisher is one of a growing number translating its unique news offering into cash through subscriptions and memberships.

“Everybody is trying to switch to the membership model,” says Shabbir. “Before they were just really relying on Facebook but there’s all kinds of ways that journalists are getting to readers now.”

It’s not just smaller, niche players who are looking beyond ad dollars.

Buzzfeed, once famed for its search algorithm-gaming listicles, has been experimenting with affiliate links in articles and offers a membership option, too.

Our analysis of data collected by the Membership Puzzle project – set up by New York University and Dutch news site De Correspondent – shows that Buzzfeed is not the only digital native trying to diversify its way out of a difficult situation. Their database counts 123 digital native publications that have turned to readers for support.

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