Ian Burrell: The News Business

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.

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Mirror boasts record traffic after culling clickbait and repairing relations with Facebook

The Mirror has reported record levels of online traffic after repairing its relationship with Facebook and introducing a content strategy that puts an emphasis on “compassionate” reporting and strips out clickbait and “low rent” video.

Mirror Online achieved its highest monthly audience of 25.49 million UK unique viewers in June, and will further increase its audience for July, according to Comscore figures, placing it second only to The Sun among UK news brands. The Mirror’s owner Reach, which also owns the Express and Star titles, registered a multi-platform digital audience of 39.48 million in June, putting it far ahead of rival stables News UK (34.47 million) and Daily Mail and General Trust (33.66 million).

The figures coincide with the departure of Reach chief executive, Simon Fox, who stood down on Monday after seven turbulent years overseeing the publisher’s digital transition. He is being replaced by Jim Mullen, former director of digital strategy at News UK. Reach’s revenues for the first half of 2019 were down 6.3% year-on-year at £353m, but digital revenues were up by 9.7%, helped by a 16% surge in average monthly page views.

In an interview with The Drum, Ben Rankin, editorial director of Mirror Online, said the site had recovered its crucial relationship with Facebook after traffic was reduced by a change in the social platform’s algorithm early last year. “We have come a long way in 12 months with Facebook, we are happy to work with them and we are trusted partner. I think it’s fair to say the algorithms last year weren’t as kind to us as they are being at the moment,” he says.

While other publishers are moving to subscription and membership-based strategies, Mirror Online – along with most of the UK’s popular news market – is committed to an advertiser-funded model and remains heavily reliant on social platforms for traffic.

Even after the algorithm change, which enraged publishers already unhappy about the Silicon Valley giant’s use of news content to increase its vast advertising income, Mirror Online is not about to abandon a platform where it has 3.1 million followers, and a family of related pages dedicated to coverage of mums, animals, celebrity news, TV and politics. “Facebook is the biggie,” says Rankin.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and concerns over fake news, Facebook has been using its mighty algorithm to clean up its act and The Mirror is willing to play ball. “We are happy to work with Facebook to optimise our audience,” Rankin says. Reach has a head of social, Yara Silva, who liaises with Facebook on behalf of all the publisher’s titles.

“It’s very easy to do the wrong things with Facebook,” says Rankin. “For example, clickbait, Facebook are cracking down on that, and if they don’t want to see it we don’t want to do it. We are about good quality journalism – we are not about beating the system.”

Mirror Online is also making a concerted effort to regulate the tone of its output and show greater “compassion”, in response to changing attitudes among the online audience, Rankin says.

“We are a tabloid, we know that, and that will always be a lens for how we report but we do want our content to have some empathy and warmth, we don’t want it to be aggressive,” he says. “We have got a clearer view on the content that we shouldn’t do and it’s content that we don’t have to do, that’s the other important thing.”

He admits to making mistakes, such as Mirror Online’s coverage of this year’s Baftas, when it ran a gallery of the worst-dressed women on the red carpet. Nicola Coughlan, an actress in the Channel 4 series Derry Girls, responded online to the Mirror’s description of her dress as “unflattering” and the site was accused on social media of degrading women.

The site “learned” from that criticism, Rankin says. “We have to evolve and we have to stop doing that. There are pictures that we won’t run and there are pictures that we will run but we will say a very different thing and we will be much more supportive and kinder to people.”

He argues that the 2019 audience for popular news media is less inclined to engage with salacious content than in earlier times of the internet. “I think readers have changed – they are more demanding and they want a better product, they want a different kind of story now and we are changing just as they are.”

He says all popular news sites “have been guilty” of using this “low rent” material. “We have all done it but actually a lot of that (content) doesn’t perform as well as it use to and a lot of it sits uncomfortably now because everyone has seen [content similar to] it. We have to move forward.”

What does perform well on Mirror Online and the title’s Facebook page is entertainment TV news, especially stories about ITV’s Love Island, which played a big part in the site’s record traffic numbers. Love Island is an annual boon to tabloid news sites and Mirror Online has quadrupled its page views compared to last year’s coverage of the villa-based reality series. “I don’t think  Love Island has been four times the series it was last year – we have got better at what we do.”

Mirror Online similarly benefits from coverage of “big cultural events”, ranging from royal weddings to a new series of ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent.

Rankin arrived at the Mirror from Metro in 2003, when its digital desk was barely half-a-dozen strong. Since then it has added a further 100. Trained at the Milton Keynes Herald, he says many of his team have backgrounds at local newspapers and news agencies. They are encouraged to find original, exclusive stories rather than simply aggregating content. “If you were brought up knocking on people’s doors and knowing that if you missed a story the competition was going to get it, that breeds the kind of competitiveness that we are trying to put into our team.”

Football has been the other big audience driver of the summer, with coverage of Premier League transfer activities following on from Liverpool’s Champions League triumph.

Following the acquisition of the Express and Star titles early last year (a big part of Fox’s legacy), Reach is in the unique position of having three national sports desks working side by side. They are based at the former Express offices at Lower Thames Street in London, under the leadership of head of sport Matty Lawless. Rankin says the teams have different areas of expertise (The Mirror is strong on boxing, for example, while The Express attracts a lot of traffic for its tennis  coverage). “They are competitive but there’s a huge degree of collaboration, that’s how we work as a company.”

The £200m takeover of the Express and Star was followed by 70 job cuts last September, as Reach looked to make savings from integration. The newsrooms of the three nationals are grouped on the 22nd floor of the One Canada Square tower in Canary Wharf.

But, outside of London, Reach has a network of regional titles that stretches from Cornwall Live (the combined website of the Cornish Guardian, the Cornishman and the West Briton) to The Daily Record in Glasgow. The entire group shares its audience data, giving Mirror Online a clear advantage over national rivals with no regional connections.

“We can be first to stories all over the country that the other national titles that are our direct competitors have not heard about,” says Rankin. “We might hear about the story first…but also, crucially, we get to see which stories are performing best for the regional titles across the group.”

This data-driven approach led The Mirror to follow a June story from sister title Wales Online about a terraced house in Rhondda which had been given a palatial interior by its owners. It became one of The Mirror’s best-read stories of the year.

The approach has helped Mirror Online grow traffic 21% year-on-year, and overhaul the rival Mail Online, which fell 11% year-on-year to 21.74 million unique viewers in the UK, reportedly after a change to the Google algorithm. Rankin acknowledges that The Mail (which has a 31.1 million UK brand reach across print and digital according to industry body Pamco) “still has a huge audience”.

Comscore audience data is not universally used across the news industry but the Mirror Online chief is pleased by the numbers before him. “What you can measure is how you are performing versus how you used to perform,” he says. “And we know we are getting a lot better.”

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

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