15 Aug 2012

Are UK journalists the best at digital news?

As Mark Thompson goes across the pond to spearhead the New York Times digital expansion, MailOnline is the most popular global news site. Channel 4 News asks: have the British got online news right?

The Guardian's Open Newslist (Getty)

Not since Tim Berners-Lee gave the internet away and Jony Ive designed Apple’s iconic iMac and iPod have the British been at the forefront of digital innovation.

Thompson, who as BBC director-general oversaw the introduction of the iPlayer and its ongoing development, is thought to be an expert in managing the sprawling multimedia metropolis of news organisations.

The iPlayer’s pivotal role in BBC’s Olympics coverage was widely praised ahead of NBC’s multi-million-pound effort, which suffered from a lack of dedicated online live-streaming.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr, chairman of the Times Company, which publishes the New York Times, said Thompson’s leadership at the BBC “helped it to extend its trusted brand identity into new digital products and services”.

Sidebar of shame

Meanwhile, MailOnline, under Martin Clarke, has overtaken its US rival The Huffington Post to become the most visited news websites.

MailOnline’s picture-heavy “sidebar of shame” chases traffic aggressively through celebrity content rather than traditional ad-based marketing.

Clarke reportedly briefed his team following MailOnline’s success with: “This shows that, firstly, I am a f****** genius, and secondly, that you are all doing really well.”

One thing that MailOnline has proven is that online page views will not necessarily cannibalise print sales – the Daily Mail’s circulation is seen as one of the least changeable on Fleet Street.


The New York Times and the newspapers of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation have dedicated themselves to the “paywall” style of online news to protect subscriber-based premium” content.

The New York Times company posted quarterly numbers for the first half of 2012 showing that while digital advertising is struggling, total revenue remains stable.

Thompson’s lack of newspaper experience may prove beneficial in this respect because it means he need not worry about eating into his new employers’ print offerings. But his new subscriber base will be very different to that of the license fee payer.

The Guardian has safety in the Scott Trust, which means it can push ahead with its digital Open Journalism initiative – at a loss.

Britannia rules

Without a state subsidy or a sustaining single owner, Mark Thompson will have to appease shareholders with every expensive experimental foray.

For now, Britannia rules the web – even the Wall Street Journal has poached Sky News’s home-grown Twitter legend Neal Mann from the Murdoch family of companies to be its new social media editor.

But the omnipresent force of Arianna Huffington will be certain to lead the US charge to reclaim the online top spot in the battle for the next few months.