Online news in Australia: ‘insanely competitive and it’s only going to get more competitive’

Friday's Walkley Foundation panel. L:R Buzzfeed's Scott Lamb, Ninemsn's Hal Crawford,'s Melissa Hoyer, The Guardian's Katharine Viner. Photo: Matt Young

Friday’s Walkley Foundation panel. L:R Buzzfeed’s Scott Lamb, Ninemsn’s Hal Crawford,’s Melissa Hoyer, The Guardian’s Katharine Viner. ABC Media Watch host Paul Barry moderating. Photo: Matt Young

A panel of some Australia’s most senior online editors have been warned the competition in the online news market is already “insanely competitive” and will only become more intense throughout 2014.

Editor of Ninemsn Hal Crawford made the declaration in a panel discussion on Friday night at a Walkley Foundation event, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, marking the formal launch of Buzzfeed Australia.

“What is going to happen with Buzzfeed and The Daily Mail and so forth, coming in? I think Scott (Lamb) is downplaying (Buzzfeed’s) competitive impact on this environment. It is taking what I would describe it as insanely competitive environment and is only going to make it more competitive,” said Crawford.

“Everyone will be looking at the Nielsen figures and trying to figure out where they are, and that means it is not a game it is certainly not going to get any less rough than it is at the moment,” he said.

Crawford’s statement was made on a panel where he was joined by Scott Lamb, international vice president of Buzzfeed,’s editor at large Melissa Hoyer and The Guardian Australia’s launch editor Katharine Viner.

Moderating the one hour panel discussion was ABC Media Watch host Paul Barry who challenged Buzzfeed’s Scott Lamb on the frivolousness of much of Buzzfeed’s content citing a number of the articles on the viral content website’s Australian homepage such as ’10 apps you never knew you needed’, ’29 problems that only Australians can understand’ and ’33 budgie smugglers you can not unsee’. He asked Lamb: “What has this got to do with journalism?”

“I think what you are seeing is only a slice of what Buzzfeed does ,” said Lamb. “Buzzfeed posts probably 400 to 500 articles a day only a certain percentage of those even go on the Buzzfeed homepage. However, we understand that people who are coming to Buzzfeed homepage are looking for a particular type of story.

“I understand why people treat Buzzfeed with a certain scepticism cause they type and they go there and see those stories… the homepage not always a landing spot for ‘hard news’ but in terms the percentage of stories we create everyday there is a strong percentage of serious news that would compete with the content created by many of the people on this stage,” said Lamb, who earlier in the night had also noted that the homepage was not Buzzfeed’s major driver of traffic with 75 per cent coming from social media sources.

The rest of the panel of editors told the audience of more than 100 people that they all grappled with these challenges of finding the right news mix online and in particular prioritising so-called ‘hard news’ in a traditional format with what is most popular.

News Corp Australia’s Melissa Hoyer said they were always watching what stories were doing well on their homepage. “At our stories cater to the reader,”she said. “As soon as they show an interest and we see those figures go through the roof, or not as the case maybe, and straight away we know they’re loving or not loving a story.”

Guardian editor Katharine Viner said the format of how to tell a story was one of the main challenges and that online stories often needed thought about the best way to present them.

“No one is saying everyone has to be like Buzzfeed… or everyone has to be like The Guardian,” said Viner. “There are all sorts of business models and different pressures, but what readers respond to is quality in the work, in all sorts of different ways.”

“The Guardian has been very successful in Australia, and what we find is most read is our most serious stuff,” she said.

“I remember, one Friday night, editing a piece that was along the lines of ’30 things that are wrong with Tony Abbott’s Direct Action Plan’ and it was evening and I remember I launched it and I just watched it go to the top and remember thinking: ‘this is what this audience wants’, they want analysis and policy but in a really accessible and interesting way.”

Ninemsn editor Crawford cited the work of Buzzfeed’s global editorial director Jack Shepherd to argue social media had actually altered the acceptable news mix in online content.

“(His) work has shown that the constant presentation that people are used to in social feeds of personal and news information has reconditioned people’s expectations of what a publisher can do,” said Crawford.

“And what we at Ninemsn find is like ( the highest ranking stories are a combination of the inconsequential and what everyone here would regard as the very important,” he said.

Friday’s forum on the future of online news in Australia comes in a year when some of Australia’s top publishers are vying for the top spot in online news in the Nielsen Online Ratings. Last year held the title of Australia’s highest traffic news website for most of the year.

However, in November 2013 Fairfax’s reclaimed the top title* a loss that hurt News Corp Australia because it coincided with the defection of editor Luke McIlveen to the newest entrant into the online news market, the Australian version of Mail Online.

The play by the UK publication The Daily Mail is seen by the industry as a strategy for helping joint venture partner Nine Entertainment’s digital division Mi9 permanently reclaim the top spot in Australia’s Nielsen news rankings.

Last year also saw the entry of UK publication The Guardian which made regular appearances in the bottom half of the Nielsen top 10 websites but according to the IAB approved metric failed to consistently build on its pre-existing audience, a point the publication has contested with Nielsen on a number of occasions.

Nic Christensen

*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the won the December Nielsen Online Ratings. The December ratings were in fact won by Ninemsn. 



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