How The Express is making a success of the UK's Brexit-focused news cycle

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Two news sites, The Guardian and The Express, are dominating Brexit-related UK search traffic, reflecting the British public’s polarised positions on the subject.

The two papers had a combined share of more than 41% of Brexit traffic from Google (and other search engines including Bing and Yahoo) during the past three months, reflecting the effectiveness of those publishers in optimising content for search on the subject that divides Britain.

Figures from SimilarWeb show that The Guardian, which has argued the case on its opinion pages for remain, took a 22.87% share of traffic from searches using the keyword ‘Brexit’ and the leave-supporting Express took 18.32%. The vast BBC website had 17.47%, with Sky News, The Telegraph and the Independent taking the next three spots and a combined share of 17%. The remaining quarter of traffic was shared between more than 100 sites.

For the Express, until recently a marginal player in UK digital news, the figures are a clear indication of how Brexit, and the site’s strategy of optimisation for search, has given it new relevance as a leading online destination for leave voters.

Comscore figures for July show the Express grew 52% year-on-year. Its mobile traffic is up 90% on last year, largely due to the Google-backed AMP (accelerated mobile pages) framework and the fact that it posts between 40-50 Brexit-related stories a day, even on the quiet days of the negotiations.

In June, the site briefly occupied third position in the table of UK digital news publishers (behind only The Sun and the Mirror by reach) after posting a 67% year-on-year lift. It has had more than 300m monthly page views for each of the past four months.

This represents an extraordinary turnaround for a title that was regarded by many of its Fleet Street rivals with disdain for its often bizarre choice of front-page stories; a carousel that fixated on the weather, the death of Princess Diana, the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the supposed threat from mass immigration.

Since Gary Jones became editor 18 months ago, the newspaper has followed a more mainstream news agenda, pulling in its teeth on immigration but still fervently Brexiteer (the Brexit Party chose it for a wraparound ad earlier this month).

In an interview with The Drum, the Express' digital director Geoff Marsh says the site’s “obsession” with Brexit has set it apart from leave-backing digital rivals such as Mail Online and The Sun. “I think it would be fair to say that the Express website has an obsession – and I mean that in a healthy way – with Brexit in a way that perhaps those websites don’t.”

The SimilarWeb stats are “a signal of ownership” of coverage of the subject, he says.

“The Express website has become a genuine destination for people who almost certainly voted leave. They know our political position – we don’t make any secrets about that, we fought for the referendum and supported Brexit. We deliver Brexit content in a way that no other publisher brand in the UK has managed to do and therefore we own it in a way – which is fantastic.”

Marsh says that the Express focused on Google traffic because it was unable to compete with powerful middle-market rival Mail Online in terms of resources and budgets.

“The decision we took on the Express website was to pursue search traffic in a very intentional way, more than any other mainstream news publisher, and we have targeted areas where we felt we could convert search users to loyal direct users,” he says. “It’s about identifying keywords and then drilling down and finding where the demand is. It’s almost like how a retailer would approach digital – we are looking at demand and supply.”

That approach has been turbocharged by the Express becoming part of the large Reach publishing stable early in 2018, joining a portfolio that includes the Mirror’s national brands and regional titles such as the Liverpool Echo and the Birmingham Mail. “Reach has helped us massively in accelerating. As a news publisher you are only as good as your insight these days, and we have access to far more data and shared learnings from across the network.”

Rather than working in isolation, Marsh works alongside Reach’s chief audience officer David Higgerson, Mirror Online's editor Ben Rankin and Ed Walker, who oversees the group’s regional network. Reach’s social media guru Yara Silva has helped with the Express' positioning on Instagram, Twitter and, most importantly, Facebook, where its traffic has more than doubled in the past year. “To bring together the Express, probably the most search brand in the competitor set, and Mirror Online, one of the most successful social brands, to share intelligence and redefine the strategy has been fantastically useful,” says Marsh.

Reach has previously produced its own research showing a liberal metropolitan bias in the advertising industry which could represent a challenge for an ardently Brexiteer legacy media brand like the Express. But, since joining the wider stable, the Express has hosted digital native content from new brands including A&E Networks, Camelot and Prostate Cancer UK.

The site has other strong suits beyond Brexit, namely its coverage of the royal family, tennis (it sent a digital reporter to cover the US Open) and big mainstream TV dramas, such as the BBC's Line of Duty and Death in Paradise. It made a tactical decision to not commit major resources to covering ITV’s Love Island, leaving the story to stablemate Mirror Online.

This all represents a massive change from the days when Richard Desmond owned the title and regarded the web with the deepest suspicion. Marsh, who had worked on the newspaper as an assistant news editor, returned to oversee the website in 2006. “There was just one bloke sat in the corner (working on the website) and my first question to my new boss was ‘Can I have access to the analytics?’” he recalls. “The response was, effectively, ‘What are analytics?’”

Since then unique monthly users have risen from 200,000 to more than 100 million (global).

Even so, Marsh expresses a surprising sympathy for Desmond’s reluctance to invest online. “He was in some ways probably right as history turned out,” he says. “He was cynical about jumping in head first on the internet and it took quite a long time for us to convince him through sustained growth that he could have more confidence in it.”

Whether the Express' obsession with Brexit is a sustainable business strategy is yet to be seen. Rival Mail Online favours time spent on its site over sheer traffic numbers and Marsh concedes that searchable headlines are only part of the battle. “We are trying to get people to stay on the website for longer and to provide them with better articles and longer reads.”

The Express has hired Joe Barnes as Brussels correspondent, which Marsh says reflects a growing reader fascination with European politics. “Brexit energised that interest in the sheer sense of political drama, the way Merkel and Macron, these Archimedes characters, are affecting the balance of power throughout Europe.” Again, it’s a strange turnaround for a paper that had turned its back on foreign coverage.

The site’s coverage of Europe is overwhelmingly negative, feeding the Eurosceptic tastes of much of its audience. "I think it’s a legitimate democratic position to take,” says Marsh. “Yes, Britain voted to leave the European Union but there are plenty of Eurosceptics – healthy Euroscepticism, I’m not talking about the far right – throughout Europe and frankly with good reason.”

He acknowledges that the Express must keep a “constant balance” in maintaining broad goodwill among a Brexiteer constituency that has its own divisions. “We have loyal readers of the website who are ex-Ukippers, we have readers of the website who are Brexit Party supporters and we have a lot of Conservative readers.” The site even has “some Guardian readers” who engage with its comment sections “to present an alternative view”.

No longer an isolated figure at the margin of Richard Desmond’s empire, the Express website chief now oversees a team of 140 from a desk in Canary Wharf that looks out over his team West Ham United’s London ground. The obsession with Brexit is working out well for him, and it’s not going to stop. “There’s a democratic issue there and we feel very passionately that that decision should be respected and we are not going to shut up until it is.”

Even then, if the UK departs the European Union next month, with or without a deal, the topic will continue to generate traffic as remain parties fight on, he insists.

“I’m not naive enough to think it will then go away. This is a multi-generational issue.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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