The Los Angeles Times’ experiment in getting readers to write a joint editorial online — a "wikitorial" (see previous post, ‘Wikitorial’) — could not have been entirely disinterested. US newspapers are trying various ways to engage readers because of declining circulation. Poynter Online recently reported on this in an article. Old media have been buying new media to expand their online readership. The Poynter report mentioned recent deals like the New York Times’ acquisition of About.com and Gannett, Tribune and Knight Ridder’s purchase of Topix.net. The media companies would not have bought the websites unless they were popular with Internet users like me.
Perhaps the most popular online news provider, however, is not a newspaper at all. It’s the BBC.
How big is the BBC?
"The improbable success online of Britain’s lumbering giant of a public-service broadcaster is largely down to John Birt, a former director-general who “got” the internet before any of the other big men of British media. He launched the corporation’s online operations in 1998, saying that the BBC would be a trusted guide for people bewildered by the variety of online services.
"The BBC now has 525 sites. It spends £15m ($27m) a year on its news website; and another £51m on others ranging from society and culture to science, nature and entertainment. But behind the websites are the vast newsgathering and programme-making resources, including over 5,000 journalists, funded by its annual £2.8 billion public subsidy.
"It is the success of the BBC’s news website that most troubles newspapers. Its audience has increased from 1.6m unique weekly users in 2000 to 7.8m in 2005; and its content has a breadth and depth that newspapers struggle to match."
— The Economist
Total newspaper readership has fallen by about 30% since 1990, says the Economist.
But some newspapers are beginning to be successful online as well. The Economist report, which covers British newspapers only, says: "The Guardian’s site is on the brink of making money. FT.com broke even at the end of 2002, after lots of investment, and the Daily Telegraph’s site started paying its way from 2002 onwards."
Interestingly both the Guardian and the Telegraph can be read for free online though the Telegraph requires registration, and the FT too offers some free content. Subscription sites such as the Times and the Independent are not doing too well, it seems.
If only the New York Times remained fully free too! The NYT columns are about to become subscription-only, but look at the Los Angeles Times. It introduced subscriptions for Calendar Live but made it free again after a couple of months. If a newspaper wants online readers, it had better stay free.