SPOTLIGHT 

Online-only news sites

Lockdown life made getting hold of newspapers and magazines difficult, so a good opportunity to examine the online news and current affairs output. Alan Geere logged on for his daily fix.

By Alan Geere

Online-only news sites
Photograph: Gilles Lambert on Unsplash.

BuzzFeed

What’s it about: ‘The world’s leading independent digital media company’ – confident assertion on website.

Vital statistics: www.buzzfeed.com accessed June 19, 2020 (www.buzzfeed.co.uk now disabled). Free to view and opportunity to sign up for the BuzzFeed Community (also free) which then enables you to make your own posts.

Appearance: A curiously under-stated home page, at least by MailOnline and equivalent standards. ‘Trending now’ has 15 big hitting stories, which all pay homage to the listicle genesis of BuzzFeed.

Content: News, Quizzes, TV & Movies, Shopping, Celebrity, Videos, Animals. Sadly, ‘news’ isn’t news as we know it, Jim, but a dreary selection of gossip and general nonsense – Ariana Grande Fans Think She's Boycotting Starbucks And Here's Why – plus other celebrity gawking.

Digital: @BuzzFeedUK has 1.7m likes on Facebook, 180k followers on Twitter, 107k YouTube subscribers and 143k Instagram followers. Clearly knows its way around social media.

What they say: “We will never just be pizza and kittens. We need to temper that with something that’s hard-hitting, something with teeth. Our investigations team has always been responsible for amazing scoops and that’s not going to change.” – James Lamon, head of content for Europe, maybe protesting too much, methinks.

Verdict: BuzzFeed closed its dedicated UK and Australian news operations in May. The UK-based investigations unit lives on although there is not much to show for it. Still the champion of lists, videos and quizzes that has served so well since it started in 2006, they know which side their bread is buttered.

The Conversation

What’s it about: ‘Academic rigour, journalistic flair’ – tagline under online masthead.

Appearance: A small, almost discreet, logo at the top of the home page has a stylish speech bubble in the ‘O’ of Conversation. Top of the page links to the nine topic areas. Headlines and pictures signal an easy click-through to the erudite content within.

Vital statistics: Website at theconversation.com/uk is free to view. Accessed June 17, 2020.

Content: A comprehensive list of topics covering Covid-19, Arts + Culture, Business + Economy, Cities, Education, Environment + Energy, Health + Medicine, Politics + Society, Science + Technology. Has a newsy backgrounder style – ably illustrated by ‘Marcus Rashford: a brief history of free school meals in the UK’ – rather than a hard news approach and provides mountains of information that would not readily be available elsewhere.

Digital: Plenty of links back to the website on social media for the 131.6k Twitter followers and the 76.2k who like them on Facebook. Has links to share every story on social media and also allow every article to be republished for free.

What they say: “To be published by The Conversation you must be currently employed as a researcher or academic with a university or research institution. PhD candidates under supervision by an academic can write for us, but we don’t currently publish articles from Masters students.” – advice on Can you write for The Conversation? Probably not…

Verdict: Has all the gravitas of a peer-reviewed journal but the approachability of something more populist. As a charity with funding from research bodies like The Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF), there’s no advertising to worry about so the user experience is clean and uncluttered. Also a super outlet for thoughtful academics who are capable of taking a journalistic approach.

The Daily Beast

What’s it about: ‘Essential reporting. Gloves optional’ – strapline on home page.

Vital statistics: www.thedailybeast.com accessed June 19, 2020. Opportunity to join ‘Beast Inside’ and ‘go deeper on the stories you can’t get enough of’ for a $1 trial month or $35 per year. Breaking news coverage plus ‘Scoops and Sharp Opinion’ available to non-members.

Appearance: ‘Happening Now’ and ‘The Download’ help viewers navigate a busy site that has healthy dollops of both celebrity and politics and some stories that meet in the middle (q.v. Trump, D.).

Content: Take your pick from Coronavirus, Cheat Sheet, Politics, Entertainment, World News, Half Full, Culture, U.S. News, Scouted and Travel. Has a page badged up as ‘United Kingdom’ which features stories with a UK angle – McCann, Sacoolas, Ferguson (Neil not Alex) – but all written from the United States.

Digital: Tiny links at the foot of the page to the big numbers of 1.2m followers on Twitter, 2.2m likes on Facebook plus 366k followers on Flipboard.

What they say: “This is random, but... if you're in the Canadian government, specifically global affairs, please DM me on an urgent matter.” – Editor-in-Chief Noah Shachtman takes the direct approach to newsgathering on Twitter.

Verdict: Began life in 2008 under founding editor Tina Brown, who brought some British editorial flair to a slew of hard-hitting stories. Still packs a punch across politics and pop culture, reporting without fear or favour, especially via ‘The Cheat Sheet’, looking at ‘The top 10 right now’.

HuffPost

What’s it about: ‘We believe real life should be reflected in the news, and that news is personal’ – philosophical message on Twitter account.

Vital statistics: www.huffingtonpost.co.uk accessed June 18, 2020. Free to view.

Appearance: Long, search-optimised headlines with US-style every Word Capped Up – NHS Test And Trace Fails To Contact A Quarter Of People Who Tested Positive For Coronavirus – send readers off to a full package of words, pictures and videos. Also has a natty drop-down index which is much easier to navigate – if you know what you are looking for.

Content: Plenty of it with the links ribbon across the top of the homepage offering News, Coronavirus, Politics, Pride 2020, Opinion, Personal, Entertainment, Life, Parents, Video. Newsy and opinionated in equal measure with pictures and videos augmenting the words. Pop-up ads, pop-up videos, pop-up subscribe to the newsletter, all of which fly around the screen in a dizzying flight of the bumblebee, take some getting used to.

Digital: Links to social media missing in action on the home page, but every story has its own individual link to share the story. @HuffPostUK on Twitter has nearly 210k followers, mainly linking straight back into the website, and the similarly branded Facebook pages has nearly 1.3m likes. Comments, or ‘conversations’ as they are branded, at the foot of stories, are well-populated just before a very long slew of ‘sponsored’, ie clickbait, content.

What they say: “We're fast, fun and inclusive… we are unapologetically entertaining” – coming over all London Palladium in their mission statement.

Verdict: HuffPost is the original internet newspaper, founded in 2005. Sold out to AOL in 2011 and now owned by the huge ‘digital content company’ Verizon and has newsrooms and editions in 15 countries. It has a fast-paced feel with up-to-the minute content reflecting world events, even if the presentation is rather on the matter-of-fact end of the spectrum with small type and modest headlines.

The Independent

What’s it about: ‘The world's most free-thinking newspaper’ – global tagline on Facebook page.

Vital statistics: 83 ‘pages’ in issue of June 19, 2020. Access to the ‘daily edition’, as it is called, is via subscription of 3 months for £3, then £8.99/month. Cancel anytime.

Cover: That distinctive masthead, a lead story, picture and neatly arranged cross-refs all wrapped up in a traditional newspaper format. The fact that the design is identical every day should not detract from the fact that it’s clean, simple and eye-catching.

Content: Divided into News, World, Voices, Section 2, Obituaries, Weather, Business, Sport and Puzzles. One story on each page which can be flipped through like you were sitting with a newspaper at a table in pub garden (oh, sorry, dreaming again). All the marquee names you would expect from a national newspaper, with the likes Patrick Cockburn and Janet Street-Porter spanning serious news analysis and serious navel-gazing.

Digital: A whopping 9.2m likes on Facebook and an equally impressive 3.2m followers on Twitter (the Times has 1.4m). Website www.independent.co.uk has breaking news and sport and much of the same content that is in the ‘paper’.

What they say: “Charity auction update: someone is bidding more for a day shadowing me than for a video call with Jose Mourinho or a guitar lesson with Ellie Goulding” – editor Christian Broughton clearly knows his worth, as he tells his Twitter followers.

Verdict: From its brave new world beginning in 1986, The Independent has survived changes in ownership and format but is still providing a daily read full of attitude and illumination. The ‘online newspaper’ approach, with one story per page, may feel rather constrained to readers who are used to scrolling through a digital panoply but it is simple, straightforward – and it works.

Medium

What’s it about: ‘Dive deeper on topics that matter to you’ – headline on home page.

Vital statistics: Stylish and enticing home page at medium.com, but you won’t get far without a subscription. Sign up for $50 (about £38) and tailor the content to your tastes. Once signed up, you can also be an author. Readers who aren’t members can access a restricted number of ‘free’ stories. Accessed June 19, 2020.

Appearance: Some enigmatic topic links across the top of the page including: Momentum (a bold white and black display of stories about protest movements), Elemental (covering Body, Brain, Food, Life, Trends), Gen (What matters now. A Medium publication about politics, power, and culture), Zora (Unapologetic. Ours. A Medium publication for women of colour).

Content: A dizzying range of material available. On the day reviewed, the ‘Popular on Medium’ assortment of what’s trending started with a story about major safety concerns for gene-edited babies, went through ‘Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop’ diverted past ‘How Elon Musk’s Starlink Could Disrupt The Telecommunications Industry’ and headed off to ‘The Dark Side of Social Media Screening Technology’.

Digital: With 2.2million followers on Twitter and 448k likes on Facebook, the social medium platforms feel more immediate and newsier than the website.

What they say: “We do not allow pornographic images or videos. We do allow erotic writing and non-graphic erotic images. We do not allow gratuitously graphic or disturbing media, even if it’s not pornographic” – getting down and maybe dirty in the ‘Medium Rules’.

Verdict: Under the innovative ‘Partner Program’, writers are paid monthly depending how much time Medium members spend reading their stories. As befits someone who was previously co-founder of Blogger and CEO of Twitter, founder and CEO Evans Williams has created the classic ‘social journalism’ platform bringing together experienced writers, enthusiastic amateurs and people who simply have something to say. You could easily lose a whole locked-down week in here.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.