Even in a period of “meteoric” online readership growth, the Guardian reports that British newspaper websites are outdoing themselves. Jemima Kiss writes:

The Mail Online’s unique user numbers increased 165% year on year to 17,903,172. In the same period, Telegraph.co.uk increased 65% to 12,348,706; Sun Online grew to 13,322,535, up 40% from January 2007, and Times Online increased 39% to 15,087,130. Guardian.co.uk remained the highest traffic website with 19,708,711, a rise of 26% year on year.

The very different rates of growth are striking. The Guardian and the Times sites appear to have entered a mature phase, where growth – although still pretty impressive – is less spectacular than in previous years. The Daily Mail’s site, meanwhile, is recording enormous gains from a much lower base, although it still lags behind the Guardian despite outselling that paper in print, nearly six to one.

Online visitor numbers for Australian newspaper sites show a similar pattern. Provided to Crikey by Nielsen Online, this table covers the period from 1 April 2007 and 31 January 2008. It shows that the quality metropolitan broadsheets started the period well ahead and recorded solid growth. Local sites linked to News Ltd papers in Perth (PerthNow), Brisbane and, to a lesser extent, Adelaide (AdelaideNow), grew more strongly from lower bases. (Two percentage growth figures are given at the bottom of each column, with the second factoring out the impact of the Christmas period.)

Newspaper websites (and the Brisbane Times): average daily unique browsers

The
Age

SMH

The Oz

Adelaide
Now

The West

Perth
Now

Courier
Mail

Brisbane
Times

April

185,602

285,552

67,527

21,492

15,752

11,687

28,192

19,614

May

213,939

324,068

76,660

22,848

17,644

11,346

32,418

24,192

June

215,393

320,105

73,052

21,757

16,269

10,628

32,230

26,903

July

214,870

324,327

72,003

22,821

17,866

12,652

33,197

29,998

August

230,072

353,143

73,838

25,327

20,898

15,481

45,609

25,968

September

234,301

349,174

70,855

29,511

18,249

18,233

51,710

28,333

October

246,615

363,603

79,067

36,810

25,553

37,834

57,141

31,429

November

249,109

382,584

89,247

38,080

24,166

30,572

57,889

35,399

December

200,051

306,101

69,513

31,863

17,884

25,239

46,305

29,137

January

239,155

370,225

79,840

37,133

22,509

30,136

56,421

35,348

% Growth
Apr–Jan

29

30

18

73

43

158

100

80

% Growth
Apr–Nov

34

34

32

77

53

162

105

81

Source: Nielsen Online, Market Intelligence, domestic traffic for audited sites, Australia

Nielsen included the relative newcomer, Fairfax’s online-only BrisbaneTimes.com.au, to help us gauge the impact and success of that attempt to offer readers an alternative in a one-newspaper town. The new site obviously gave the Courier Mail a fright, coming within a few thousand of its daily traffic by July last year after only months in operation. It also elicited that very rare thing: a tribute to a Fairfax identity in the pages of The Australian. But the Courier Mail fought back strongly, presumably with an intense marketing effort, and ended the period with 80% more browser visits each day. Other local News sites also pulled up their socks in the second half of 2007.

These figures suggest that News has invested heavily in its capital city sites to strengthen their capacity to fight off any further Fairfax initiatives. A couple of calls to Jack Matthews, head of Fairfax Digital, to find out their plans for Perth, Adelaide, Hobart and elsewhere elicited no response, but the indications are that the next new project from Fairfax will be an online-only news site in WA, The Perth Leader. Not surprisingly, The Australian was suspicious of a meeting between Fairfax and WA government representatives to discuss the plan late last year.

In Adelaide, Fairfax already has a relationship with the locally owned Independent Weekly, which has joined the Domain real estate network and takes copy from The Age and the SMH; it won’t be surprising to see further online cooperation in a market dominated by News. The IW is between editors at the moment, but recently appointed Ashley Porter (ex-Sensis and The Age) as special publications editor to look after supplements including Domain and Sportsbeat.

The odd player out in Nielsen’s stats is The Australian, whose website, despite a significant investment, has the low growth rate of the more mature Fairfax sites without their underlying strength in terms of raw numbers. Another year of the same sort of growth rates and The Australian’s site will be outread by the Courier-Mail’s. It looks as if, on the globalised internet, local identity still very much matters.

Peter Fray

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