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06 Dec 2017

Amidst chatter of a ‘pivot to reality’ for internationally oriented digital-born news media, which rely mainly on one revenue model – advertising – there is substantial interest in the dynamics of international news expansion, and the business models and editorial approaches that can sustain digital-born media in the future.

A new RISJ report, The Global Expansion of Digital-Born News Media by Tom Nicholls, Nabeelah Shabbir and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, analyses the basic business, distribution and editorial strategies of 7 different digital-born media across the US, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK.

Based on a series of interviews with senior editors and managers, the report explores the digital expansion of Brut, Business Insider, De Correspondent, HuffPost, Mashable, Quartz, and Vice. It finds that most digital-born news media sites use a combination of on-site and off-site distribution to build large audiences across multiple countries, with a ‘US-plus’ model focusing on the United States and a number of additional markets, and with heavily advertising-dependent business models.

Whilst the sites interviewed have grown internationally as they have received venture capital, the market has become more complex. With the move to mobile, the rise of programmatic, competition from large platform companies, and the spread of ad-blockers, ad-supported revenue models are proving challenging across the industry. Cost cutting is becoming more prevalent even as global scale is pursued, with little proof that expansion provides straightforward profitability.

Expansion across multiple markets has enabled internationally oriented digital-born news media to expand their audience, this expansion also comes with challenges, and involves dealing with the tension between globalising and localising pressures, decisions about whether to partner or go alone, maintaining consistency in branding and tone across multiple editions and languages catering to sometimes very different markets, and the challenges of coordinating global newsrooms.

All of the media sites interviewed consider themselves to be ‘niche’ publishers with a wider range of internet competitors. Most are developing technological responses to the challenges of international expansion – in coordinating and maintaining consistency journalism across newsrooms abroad, and in behaving more like tech companies and building their own tools.

Our research suggests that the challenges that these ‘niche publishers’ face are fundamentally similar to other news media: how to develop editorial, distribution, and funding strategies that enable a sustainable, perhaps even profitable, production of quality news in an increasingly digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment.