Playing the numbers game
So, just who has bragging rights in Scotland’s online news media?
It’s a question brought to mind following the recent appointment of Stephen Emerson to the Scotsman.com editor’s chair, when Johnston Press’ head of digital content Alex Gubbay claimed the paper was Scotland’s busiest news portal.
Then last week STV, briefly, claimed that their news service was Scotland’s most local, until withdrawing the claim - in a story hyping the launch of tonight’s Scotland Today current affairs show - presumably on the grounds that the term was nonsensical.
But the thorny issue of metrics for online news remains. For how do you measure something as nebulous and intangible as engagement with your audience when your a purveyor of news, not product.
It doesn’t help, of course, that there’s no substantial numbers for Scotland’s main online news providers. Gubbay claims two million uniques for Scotsman.com while former editor Stewart Kirkpatrick suggests 1.5m. The truth probably lies in between.
The Record’s numbers are included within Trinity Mirror’s ‘big five’ - the two Mirror titles, the People and the two Scottish titles - although my understanding is that it’s comparable to the Scotsman’s numbers.
Runt of the litter HeraldScotland is drawing less than a million monthly uniques, according to the ABCe. But it, at least, publishes figures through industry standard metrics - something the Scottish Sun doesn’t do.
Meanwhile STV News’ numbers are included within the baseline figure for visitors to STV.TV, as are BBC Scotland’s, which skews the numbers entirely for, while newspaper sites tend to attract visitors purely for news, a broadcaster has a bunch of different arms, of which news is just one, that will attract visitors.
But should that matter? After all, unlike print circulation, online is more than just a straight numbers game. Measuring the popularity and engagement of a website is a far more complex equation than counting sales and multiplying by two and a bit.
User comments, for a start, throw a spanner into the works. When I was digital editor at the Record, the site was responsible for an overwhelming percentage of user comments on Trinity Mirror’s suite of sites - substantially more than the other nationals put together.
When you’ve stories which attract three or four hundred comments within a matter of hours, that represents an incredible level of debate and discussion - and debate which is all enclosed within the boundaries of your own site, generating traffic for that story - that’s a popularity metric that’s hard to argue with.
Some would though - indeed, the counter-argument would be social engagement. How many times your story has been tweeted, liked, +1ed or shared, how much discussion or debate it is generating on social media platforms.
If a good front page was designed to make casual buyers pick up the paper, then a good story online should, it follows, be designed to encourage users to share it with others. While all Scottish sites are dabbling with social media to greater or lesser extents, it remains a difficult area to capitalise on - not least given the number of reporters in Scotland who fail to actually link to the online version of their stories, instead urging readers to buy the print product.
There’s the minor matter of geography. The Scotsman may boast 2m uniques, but how many of those are from within Scotland? Is a site with only 50% of its audience coming from its homeland better engaged with its audience than say, a hyperlocal site with just 10,000 uniques but 85% of those coming from its immediate locale?
According to ABCe figures earlier this year, a staggering 95% of visitors to the HeraldScotland site come from within the UK, and 60% of those from within Scotland. Clearly somebody’s looking at it, then - indeed, those numbers suggest that of all the nationals, it leads the way in terms of hitting a core demographic, despite being read by few and liked by less.
Or is the ultimate form of engagement with news a willingness to pay for it. The Times’ - both of New York and London - are enjoying an increase in uptake for digital subscriptions, with more users willing to venture behind the paywall to get their fix.
While critics of paywalls sneer at the audience drop-off from the free models, there’s few more tangible sign of engagement than a reader being willing to part with the readies in order to have access to content, particularly with so many other options out there.
Experiments with paywalls in Scotland have, so far, failed to find favour yet number crunchers continue to be aware that the expenditure to income ratio of most news websites is uncomfortably in the red.
Therein lies the problem. Ultimately, anyone can make an argument to be Scotland’s most successful/popular/engaged news site because there’s a dozen and one ways of measuring success, and each of those can be comfortably interpreted or gamed to one’s advantage. Whenever a site claims to be Scotland's most read, most popular or most engaged news website, consider exactly how that claim was achieved.
Because is there any real kudos in claiming to be Scotland’s most read news website? Scotland’s most popular? Surely, in a global news economy, Scots websites should be aiming at as wide a demographic as possible rather than as narrow. Or is the need for bragging rights at home a comfort blanket against how small scale our online news operations really are...?