Speaking in Toronto this week, Emily Bell, former head of digital at The Guardian, argued that newspapers must be ‘of the web, not just on the web’. She believes that the success of The Guardian’s website is down to it’s determination to embrace new opportunities offered by the internet. This includes user generated content, harnessed most strikingly by the Comment is Free section of the website. (You can read a great summary of Bell’s whole speech here at gigaom.com.)
As British newspapers scramble to cope with the impact of the web, the guardian.co.uk is undoubtedly one of the big success stories. It is certainly the most innovative, and this has been rewarded with more than 39m monthly browsers.
But this is dwarfed by the sheer might of the Mail Online, which attracts a massive 56m users per month.
And this is where it gets interesting. Because the Mail is the opposite of the Guardian. It doesn’t exactly ‘engage’ with its readers. It doesn’t run live blogs, or feature infographics, or podcasts, or any of the other web-only trinkets that the Guardian relies so heavily on. It rarely links to other articles. It’s journalists are not part of the Twitteratti, as the Guardian’s are; in fact, bar a few sports writers, Mail journalists keep themselves to themselves online and are far outnumbered by Mail-hating parodies, (@stopdailymail, @DailyWail, @DMReporter to name a few). Sure, you can comment on the Mail’s website, but you get the sense this is more people mouthing off rather than an actual engaged debate between users, which is what the Guardian has tried so hard to foster.
This goes against all of the received wisdom on making it big on the web. Paul Bradshaw, online journalism tutor at City University, argues that the arrogance of failing to engage, to link, to consciously stimulate debate online is traditional journalism’s single biggest flaw. In his opinion, fostering communities who talk to each other should be journalism’s most pressing aim:
“Any online operation that does not incorporate its users in production is not only democratically deficient, it is commercially inefficient.
Of course some are inclined to see user generated content as a mass of ignorance, abuse and waffle. Those people should ask how much work has been put into attracting good contributors? Into developing a healthy commenting culture? And how much has been invested into giving the good users a reason to keep coming back?”
The Mail is guilty of this very arrogance. It is essentially an old-fashioned newspaper, online. But it remains on top; you could hardly accuse it of being ‘commercially inefficient’.
The reason the Mail Online is so popular is simple; it runs great stories, with even better pictures. And, like the hard-copy Mail, it is persuasively laid-out (who can resist that pink showbiz sidebar?) The old maxim proves true: content is king. And it’s the kind of content that only the resources, access and well-honed skill of a traditional news institution could produce.
So how do we measure success online? Is it level of engagement, or is it pure hits? The Guardian or The Mail? I have a hunch what the advertisers might say.