Conde Nast’s Ars Technica struggles in UK expansion

Condé Nast Britain is winding down its digital-only brand Ars Technica in the U.K. The magazine publisher, which debuted the technology-focused site in the U.K. two years ago, has all but ceased its U.K. operations — a stark reminder that nothing is certain in digital.

The site’s U.K. URL will remain for now, but it will be staffed by just one person — Ars Technica UK consumer editor Mark Walton — and a mix of freelancers. The publisher confirmed four editorial staffers were laid off. Previously, there were six full-time editorial staffers and a deep bank of freelancers. U.K. editor Sebastian Anthony, who oversaw the site’s British debut, and news editor Kelly Fiveash are among those who have left.

A Condé Nast Britain spokeswoman said Ars Technica will continue in the U.K. and that the cuts are part of an ongoing restructuring. But with just one permanent staffer, it’s unclear how long the site will last. For now, Walton will report directly to U.S.-based Ars Technica founder and editor-in-chief Ken Fisher and Wired Media Group editor Greg Williams.

Launching a digital-only media brand is tough, and Condé Nast Britain isn’t the only publisher to find that brands successful in their original markets — like Ars Technica in the U.S. — aren’t guaranteed longevity in foreign markets. In the last six months, major titles like the Guardian were forced to scale back U.S. operations.

Technology is a highly saturated market, with specialist titles including Dennis Publishing’s Alphr and other digital native sites like Engadget, The Verge and others all jostling for space. Ars Technica has the additional challenge of having to differentiate from fellow Condé Nast-owned title Wired — a far more well-established title in the U.K., with 943,000 monthly visitors, according to comScore. That overlap in editorial mandate was never fully resolved, according to people close to the situation.

“Ars Technica is online-only in an increasingly challenging digital marketplace for magazine brands,” said Alice Pickthall, media analyst at Enders Analysis. “Condé Nast may seek to reshuffle investment toward their stronger consumer brands, such as Wired, which is a similar proposition.”

That said, traffic on Ars Technica rose steadily for a time. A year in, Ars Technica UK was faring relatively well, claiming 1.5 million monthly users last May. ComScore put the figure at around 652,000, excluding mobile devices during the same month. The editorial team aimed to differentiate by focusing on tech and gaming for high-brow IT and tech specialists when other tech sites were trying to become more mainstream.

The U.K. site ran separately from its U.S. counterpart, in line with how Condé Nast operates autonomously in different markets, but it shared U.S. stories about generic technology and science that were of interest to both audiences to free up U.K. editorial resources to go deeper on local stories and cover areas like European policy.

“Ars Technica had some very good content, which was interesting and often quirky. When they went in depth, they did so very well, probably in a less glossy way than Wired would,” said David Carr, strategy director at DigitasLBi. “But that wasn’t enough to distinguish them against the bigger brands like Tech Insider, which is like a fire hose on Facebook and other channels. Ars Technica wasn’t playing the clickbait game on social platforms.”

First-year shine can only last so long, especially in an area as crowded as digital publishing. After that, the brand didn’t get much sales traction, according to sources close to the situation. Commercial operations have always been lean at the technology title in the U.K., with one core sales director, Ciara Byrne, who left a few months ago to join Condé Nast International’s Vogue Digital team. She wasn’t replaced. After she left, commercial operations were rolled into Wired Media Group, with the idea of having more collaboration between Ars Technica and Wired. Editorial operations remained separate until now.

Ars Technica’s U.K. revenue is a combination of programmatic, creative solutions and direct ad sales, according to the publisher. Often, publishers grow ad revenue for smaller international outfits by pushing programmatic sales, but with a niche audience, that was never going to be the core revenue driver for Ars Technica UK. The majority of the U.K. outfit’s revenue was direct ad sales, including deep strategic partnerships with the likes of Microsoft, Google and HP.

Brand awareness was always an issue with local agencies, and some said the offering was overpriced. Offering a global sell was also not appealing to agencies with local U.K. budgets that are always looking to compare titles to local competitors, said Charlotte Tice, head of Affinity at Mindshare. “I remember thinking we would never do anything with them at those prices,” she said. “They priced themselves like an FT-type brand. That might work if the brand is well-known, but that’s not the case in the U.K. That was their biggest issue; no one knew who they were.”