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What to do with an accidental audience

Over the past few years, some UK nationals have garnered a healthy and demographically-attractive overseas audience. But overseas audiences are much harder to monetise than domestic ones, and publishers have been struggling to find the right commercial formula. Recently, reports Ray Snoddy, they have been ramping up their efforts, particularly in the US.

By Ray Snoddy

Naturally everyone in the newspaper business gets a warm feeling when the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) comes out with their annual worldwide survey of the industry.

Tough times maybe, but it’s great to know that overall the news is good – that more than 532 million people buy a newspaper every day, up from a mere 486 million in 2003, and average daily readership is 1.7 billion. The numbers are both terrific and true but quickly fall into perspective. No less than 74 of the world’s leading best-selling newspapers are in Asia – most in China, Japan and India.

Less rosy here

A rather less palatable fact from WAN is that the sales of daily paid-for newspapers in the UK fell by 3.46% last year and that there has been a decline of no less than 10.14% between 2003 and 2007.

But there is at least one aspect of national newspaper production in the UK that should receive unalloyed praise – readers all round the world like British newspaper journalism and the diversity of the views expressed and click on in their millions to the websites of the general national newspapers.

It is the unexpected, almost accidental harvest; merely an incidental by-product of the international nature of the internet, at least until now.

The growing experience of newspapers online has revealed something close to a geographical law of nature – online produces a rough-and-ready rule of three, one third of online readers are likely to come from the UK, one third will be from the US and the final third will be widely distributed across the rest of the world.

Whether it is the Times, the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph, the same split holds true.

The million dollar question

It may be fine and dandy for British newspapers to enjoy the biggest international audience they have ever had – perhaps as high as 100 million if you err on the generous side for the sake of big round numbers. But the really big question is how, if at all, are the nationals going to make any money out of the audience of eves-droppers and free-loaders from overseas that technology has deposited in their laps?

There is little doubt at all about the quality of the audience being reached by "the qualities," particularly in the US, although there remains a dispute about the numbers because the Americans and the Brits count the clicks in a different way.

Who’s visiting

There are clearly some expats among the audience, but it is equally clear that most are not. The numbers are simply too large for that.

As for the audience, research in the US shows that they are more likely than not to have a university degree, an above average income, live on either the West Coast or the East Coast rather than in the middle, and be in the ranks of the 20% or so of Americans who have passports and are therefore likely to travel abroad.

"This is certainly Long Tail stuff. You have a valuable audience based on the demographics and earnings. This is an interesting audience. They are keen, they read, they are adventurous; who wouldn’t want to engage with that audience?" asks Michael Moore, head of all things digital at the Daily Telegraph.

They are also "enlightened American folks" who are looking deliberately for a wider perspective than that provided by the US media.

"If you are a big global company like HSBC, BA or Citigroup, these are people who are pretty valuable from any profile perspective," adds Moore, an American who came to the Telegraph from AOL.

While the original growth of international audiences was organic and partly accidental, there is now clear evidence of the nationals tuning into it and trying to do something about it in an organised way. Interestingly, the response to the newspaper web, whether in the UK or abroad, is markedly different from the paper edition, and not just in age profile.

Unlike newspapers, which are brand led, Moore believes the online editions are "stuff" led and that this is a positive characteristic for the news business.

"You maybe have people who wouldn’t buy the Guardian ever, but if they cover football well, or the US election well, people will go to it. The same thing with us at the Telegraph," says Moore, who says he is absolutely bullish about this relatively new opportunity for the UK newspaper industry.

Strong stories and quality of coverage are both clearly important for this online international audience.

The Obama effect

At the Times, Anne Spackman, editor-in-chief of Online, is, for strictly professional reasons, a big fan of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

The US audience to British online newspaper sites has been particularly strong since the beginning of the year, since the battle between Obama and Hilary Clinton got under way in earnest.

"I have to say that there are a lot of people like me who run websites who are very glad that Barack Obama won. He is definitely box office," says Spackman.

The UK online audience has also responded well to the unfolding American political drama, but the credit-crunch saga has also been one that has played well both in the US and British markets, and indeed throughout the rest of the English-speaking world.

Why Americans visit

"The US audience has been particularly strong this year and the UK audience for American news has also been very strong. It’s a two way thing and has definitely been different this year," says Spackman.

The American interest in British journalism has probably two main causes - apart from minorities looking for coverage of "soccer" or the Premier League as it’s more commonly called here.

With very few exceptions, the American media has cut back heavily on foreign coverage and Americans can get a much more balanced view of world news from what used to be called the broadsheets in the UK.

Sceptics can also tap into a very different view of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan policy than that generally portrayed by the mainstream American media.

When Tim Brooks, managing director of the Guardian, goes to the US and meets American media types, he gets praise for the Guardian website. They say it tells then things about their own foreign policy they would never learn from their own media.

"But it’s not all earnest geopolitical stuff, they also love our coverage of the Premiership," Brooks emphasises.

Apart from the fact that international users of the website turn out to be quite recognisably similar to the sort of people who would buy the Guardian in the UK, they tend to break down into two unequal parts.

The smaller group are a dedicated regular readership. As for the rest, Brooks believes they are "like swallows on the surface of a stream who skim in to pluck a particularly plump, juicy insect off the top of the water."

US-based operations

As far as the Guardian is concerned, the paper is not just skimming the surface in terms of editorial coverage. Last year, the paper set up a Guardian America editorial office in Washington with around a dozen journalists.

"They do two things. One is obviously they are feeding stories into the Guardian and the Observer foreign pages, but importantly they are also amplifying our coverage of the US and our ability to provide US perspectives and they have done some very interesting work," says Brooks.

Great. But how can you make any money out of this audience that the UK press has delivered, not just in the US, but scattered across the world.

The answer is with difficulty – and patience is required.

In ABC terms, for example, the Guardian website has 6 million plump web readers in the US, but the numbers according to Neilsen and Comscore are between 3 million to 4 million. This is too small to attract the attention of Madison Avenue.

So the Guardian has teamed up with Reuters to sell advertising in the US and presentations to leading advertising agencies began in the past few months. Selling outside the UK and the US, Brooks believes, is difficult but not impossible. Until now the Guardian has been using Yahoo for the task.

The trouble is that if the cost-per-thousand in the UK was £15, then overseas it would be a fraction of that, mainly because you can’t control the inventory.

If you want to push up the ad rates in the traditional newspaper world, you can limit the number of pages. This is not possible online because, according to some estimates, there may be as many as 1 billion unsold pages available every month.

The way ahead?

Help may be at hand. Rob Norman, head of Group M Interaction in New York believes that over time a two tier system will evolve. For the majority, there will be commodity pricing. Elite sites such as the Washington Post and the New York Times will be able to charge more and there is no reason why the top British nationals should not join such a group.

It’s early days yet but Spackman at the Times now has a representative in New York and hopes to link up with the online activities of the rest of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire which now includes the Wall Street Journal.

Over at the Telegraph, they are still reviewing the options although they already have a person representing them on the ground. The questions to be considered include whether or not to build a team in the US to go out and sell the website or go for joint ventures.

Moore concedes there is no single "silver bullet" to monetise overseas online audiences at the moment, but believes it is only a matter of time.

"It will take a bit of time for the buy side of this to evolve but we think it is a very valuable audience," says Michael Moore of the Daily Telegraph.

At the very least, the accidental overseas audience of the nationals is one reason for future optimism about the newspaper business - if not quite on the WAN scale.