European digital publishers are more likely to thrive in markets where their legacy counterparts are weaker, rather than in countries where digital media is the audience's preferred source of news or where the advertising landscape is more favourable.
'Digital-born news media in Europe', a report published today by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), examines 12 digital natives across France, Germany, Spain and the UK, providing an overview of their business models, distribution strategies and editorial priorities and the role they play in their respective countries.
The research looks at El Confidencial and El Español in Spain, Mediapart and Les Jours in France, Correctiv and Krautreporter in Germany, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and The Canary in the UK, as well as the corresponding international editions of The Huffington Post in each of these countries.
In all four countries, these digital players remain a "relatively small part of the overall news media sector," with most of them smaller than traditional organisations in terms of audiences, revenues and resources.
But the authors, Tom Nicholls, RISJ research fellow, Nabeelah Shabbir, freelance journalist and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, RISJ director of research, also point out that some, such as El Confidencial and Mediapart, have grown to "rival some legacy media" in some of these aspects.
"Digital-born news media are generally more prominent in Spain and France, with relatively weak legacy news media, than in Germany and the UK where legacy media remain strong," the report says.
The research identifies legacy media organisations in Spain and France as weaker by comparing their sales and advertising revenues per capita to those of their counterparts in the UK and Germany, Nielsen told Journalism.co.uk.
The editorial mission of the news outlets analysed varies across the board. For example, TBIJ and Correctiv focus on investigative journalism to supplement the reporting of legacy media, while the breadth of coverage at The Huffington Post and El Confidencial can often overlap with that of traditional media, although it is approached differently.
The way in which digital publishers fund their operations ranges from advertising-based models, to subscriptions and memberships and donations, depending on whether they identify as for-profit or non-profit.
However, there seems to be a "clear shift away from primarily relying on advertising" and a desire to begin or continue experimenting with subscriptions and a mix of other revenue sources, including affiliate marketing and e-commerce, content syndication and book publication, among others.
For digital outlets focusing on raising money through grants, foundations and crowdfunding, "the national context is hugely important", the authors pointed out.
While foundations that support journalism in the public interest are often found in the US, they are more difficult to access in Europe, so publishers should look for organisations willing to fund a particular field instead.
"If we find an area that is just not being covered properly, that is so worthy of being covered, like antibiotic resistance, then we can go to funders who cover that specific area, and then we have to persuade them that journalism should be part of their mix," Rachel Oldroyd, deputy editor of TBIJ, explains in the paper.
"So, rather than coming in and saying 'please fund an investigative journalism project', you’re saying 'we want to do this work which is in your remit'".
For digital publishers, news distribution through search engines and social media is important, but presents the same challenges and opportunities as it does for legacy media.
For most of the organisations covered in the report, the website is still central to news distribution – El Confidencial and The Huffington Post need it to bring in advertising revenue, while Mediapart and Les Jours use it to acquire new subscribers and build engagement and loyalty by giving readers access to subscriber-only sections.
At TBIJ and Correctiv, who often publish work in partnership with other national and international outlets, their own websites act more like archives and are secondary to distribution avenues such as their partners' websites.
Distributed news channels such as Facebook Instant Articles, Snapchat Discover and Apple News have been adopted differently – while El Español gets most of its traffic from social media (40 per cent), the French edition on The Huffington Post has chosen not to experiment with Instant Articles, whereas El Confidencial was the first outlet in Spain to test the feature and see favourable results.
The editorial priorities of all 12 digital publishers are closely aligned with their business models and distribution models.
Those who still rely primarily on advertising centre their strategies around attracting more readers, while outlets that get the bulk of their funding from donations and crowdfunding need to differentiate their reporting from that which is available for free.
The authors also found that the digital organisations analysed seek social impact to a greater extent than legacy media, which aligns them more closely to the "European tradition of campaigning and partisan newspaper journalism than with traditions of broadcast journalism more committed to the idea of impartiality and detached objectivity".
As such, part of TBIJ's investigative work is to reach out to policy makers and influential groups and individuals, like NGOs, campaigners and politicians.
All 12 digital publishers aim to stand out in their markets by focusing on in-depth coverage of a few select areas, bringing in distinct voices that are not featured in other outlets' reporting and producing high-quality coverage in countries where "newspapers in particular have had to cut their editorial investment in recent years".
For example, Mediapart was founded in 2008 to focus on political and economic investigations, while El Confidencial launched in 2001 to cover business and economics in Spain.
"Even the biggest of the above players and those most strongly influenced by their founders’ long experience in legacy media shy away from replicating the bundled model of newspapers," Nicholls, Shabbir and Nielsen wrote.
"No one wants to offer a little bit of everything for everyone. There is a mix, but the mix is more focused. None of the cases studied currently have significant sports coverage, for example."
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