The past few years have been positively revolutionary for the Australian news landscape. From a static and highly concentrated media market, dominated by News Corporation, Fairfax, and the ABC, new players have gradually entered the market, and the next new entry lumbering up to the starting blocks is the Australian version of The Huffington Post.
Emerging from founder Arianna Huffington’s earlier forays into political blogging in the mid-2000s, HuffPo has become a major political voice in the United States, and has recently expanded into a number of global markets, with over a dozen localised editions now available. Huffington Post Australia, in partnership with Fairfax Media, is slated to launch on Wednesday, August 19.
Does Huffington Post Australia stand a chance of gaining a foothold in the increasingly crowded Australian news and commentary market? The fate of some of the other recent additions to the media mix may provide a useful guide here.
Comprehensive data on site visits collected by Experian Hitwise shows a range of crucial trends: first, with the general shift towards online news consumption, the total number of site visits to the leading news sites has been trending strongly upwards – from an average of just under 6 million visits per week during 2013, leader news.com.au has grown to over 13 million weekly visits since June 2015, for example.
Second, while the shape of the market has long remained stable, with news.com.au, the Sydney Morning Herald, and nineMSN (now 9 News) fairly evenly matched, since early 2014 the fortunes of the market leaders have diverged. Having embraced a more populist, tabloid content strategy, news.com.au has established itself as the clear market leader, while the SMH’s growth has merely followed the overall trend, and 9 News has stagnated both before and after its rebranding.
Meanwhile, the entrance of two UK-based news organisations into the local market has affected the status quo considerably. The Guardian and the Daily Mail had already been reasonably popular with Australian audiences well before their local spin-offs were announced and launched, but their dedicated domestic coverage has been able to boost their appeal considerably.
Growth in visits to Daily Mail Australia has been especially pronounced, from a weekly average of just over 2 million in 2013 to nearly 8 million visits per week since June 2015 – well above the average growth trend. The trajectory shows a clear bump in readership since the transition to dedicated Australian content in May 2014, and since the start of 2015 Daily Mail Australia has been clearly established as the third most popular Australian news site.
Even before its Australian launch, in fact, Daily Mail was easily more popular with Australian internet users than local tabloids Herald-Sun or Daily Telegraph.
Guardian Australia’s progress has been somewhat slower, building from a lower base. Even after its official launch in May 2013, the site struggled to break through the barrier of 1 million visits per week, until the 2013 federal election campaign provided it with the opportunity to establish a stronger profile as a new space for quality political coverage; since June 2015, the site has averaged some 3.7 million visits per week, and sits comfortably in the top ten of Australian news sites.
Buzzfeed’s official launch on 31 January 2014 did cause at least a momentary spike in visits, and marks the point at which the site becomes more strongly competitive in the Australian media landscape. Long running neck-and-neck with Guardian Australia and the international edition of Huffington Post, during the remainder of 2014 Buzzfeed Australia gradually pulls ahead of both sites. It is now established as a popular site in Australia, rivalling 9 News, The Age, and ABC News: it has attracted an average of nearly 5 million visits per week since June 2015.
Ahead of its Australian launch, the international edition of the Huffington Post remains a considerably more niche publication – yet still ranking ahead of more established Australian titles such as The Australian (whose partial paywall may affect visitor numbers, however) or the Canberra Times. Notably, HuffPo’s Australian visitor numbers have been trending downwards over the past year, averaging some 1.7 million visits per week since June 2015.
It will be interesting to see whether the launch of an Australian edition of the Huffington Post can arrest or even reverse this decline. The performance of other recent entrants into the Australian online news and commentary market has clearly shown that such sites can establish themselves as viable and even leading players in the media landscape. However, the greatest successes have been reserved for comparatively populist and tabloid outlets like Daily Mail Australia and Buzzfeed Australia.
By contrast, Guardian Australia’s achievements to date have been more limited. Its parent organisation is recognised as a globally leading, quality news brand, whose closest Australian equivalents are perhaps the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. However, in spite of its undoubted contributions to Australian political journalism, Guardian Australia has yet to even come close to rivalling the visitor numbers attracted by these Fairfax titles’ sites.
Huffington Post, in turn, caters to a considerably more narrow audience. By boosting its coverage of Australian politics and current affairs, it should be able to at least maintain the established Australian audience for its international edition, which would leave it placed above titles such as The Australian in total weekly visits.
It seems unlikely, though, that it could catch up again with a site like Guardian Australia – whose numbers it matched, one year ago – in the immediate future.