Upstart business-news Web site GlobalNet Financial.com Inc. is moving into expansive new quarters in a seven-story, steel-and-glass building just off London's Piccadilly Square. Across the River Thames, editors in the fortress-like Financial Times headquarters are hiring dozens of journalists to man the relaunched FT.com. In the City financial district, Web startup Interactive Investor International is basking in the afterglow of an initial public offering last month that saw its shares almost double. And around the corner, near Fleet Street, historic home to London newspapers, America's TheStreet.com is cranking out its British edition. What gives? "Europe's financial sector is hot, and everybody's slugging it out," says analyst Nick Jones of Jupiter Research in London.
Europe is becoming the latest battleground for the Digital Age version of newspaper wars. Competition among financial news and information Web sites is growing fierce as Internet startups, established newspapers, banks, brokerages, and American intruders all try to stake their claim to the market.
The Continent remains at least two years behind the U.S. in Internet penetration and online trading, but many Europeans bank online, and they're investing more in stocks. That adds up to loads of potential demand for financial Web sites. And as the battle gets under way, Davids such as Interactive Investor and GlobalNet actually have a fighting chance against the Goliaths. With all of six reporters, Interactive Investor attracted 221,000 British visitors in January, according to market researcher MMXI Europe. In the same period, FT.com, whose newspaper parent has nearly 600 editors and reporters in Europe alone, had 212,000 visitors.
To distinguish themselves, the combatants are taking different editorial approaches. Converts from print media, such as FT.com, emphasize general business news primarily for top executives, while the upstarts are targeting the masses with a scrappier approach and a concentration on personal finance. Check out these typical GlobalNet features: "Mrs. Cohen's Diary," with investment advice for women, and "Evil Knievel Stock Tips" for daredevil investors. Recent postings at FT.com, on the other hand, include an essay on Internet domain names and a special report on Britain's budget debate. "We want to be a premier business portal," says FT.com editorial director Peter Martin.
All the financial-news portals face one big question: How to pay the bills? As in the U.S., customers are not willing to lay out any cash for financial news online. "The subscription model is a strategic cul de sac," says Martin. TheStreet.co.uk has come to the same conclusion: It's free, even though its U.S. parent charges for many services. Access to WSJ.com costs $59 a year, but subscribers to The Wall Street Journal Europe can read it online for free. "We think we give a lot of extra value, but we're always asking questions" about the subscription model, says Neil Budde, editor and publisher of WSJ.com.
Without subscribers who'll pay, financial sites are turning to other sources of revenue, particularly advertising and financial services. FT.com thinks it will be able to support itself with advertising. Internet Investor International connects readers to other sites that offer financial services. GlobalNet is taking the controversial step of selling insurance and executing currency trades itself. It's also applying for a securities license and plans to launch its own online brokerage. "We can sell almost any type of financial product," says GlobalNet CEO Stanley Hollander. For Hollander, the plan makes sense: He has never been a journalist, but he used to run the corporate-finance department for brokerage Gruntal & Co.
The prospect of newspapers-cum-financial supermarkets horrifies many from the world of traditional journalism. "There must be a strict division between the news and business side," says Susan Lavery, a director at the International Center for Journalists in Washington. Nevertheless, some of GlobalNet's competitors are getting into selling financial services online, too. FT.com sells mortgages at a site called FTYourMoney. Martin claims that there's no conflict because the mortgage services are offered on a site separate from the editorial operation.
Almost as thorny as such conflicts of interest are the difficulties of turning out local content for a continent with dozens of different languages. The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal have joint-ventures with French and German newspapers but publish on the Web only in English. In contrast, about half of GlobalNet's staff write in languages other than English for the company's sites around Europe. "The key to growth in Europe is getting local content, and GlobalNet is doing just that," says Joseph DiLustro, a researcher at RGR Financial Corp., a New York investment bank. Local first-movers such as Boursorama, a French investment Web site, and Focus, an offshoot of a German newsweekly, also score high in ratings and will likely give pan-European players stiff competition.
The real battleground, though, may be in wireless access to financial news. With more than half the population in some countries carrying mobile phones and service providers preparing to offer Web access on the fly, Europeans are likely to take up phone trading en masse before Americans do. GlobalNet has a deal with British Telecommunications to serve its 20 million mobile customers. Another upstart, Talkcast.co.uk, last month hired a half-dozen British financial journalists to prepare a financial service adapted for wireless phones. In comparison, U.S.-based competitors seem far behind. CBSMarketWatch --which is launching a joint venture with the FT--is only available on Palm systems. It hasn't yet developed a version that will work on European mobile phones. And the Journal still hasn't decided on a strategy. "I'm embarrassed, but we haven't moved as quickly as I would have liked on this," admits Budde.
It's still early in the game, and all the financial Web sites can count on a growing appetite for their products. Europe's investment culture is changing fast. Governments are opening the gates to private pension plans, privatizations are spreading share ownership, and Internet and high-tech share offerings have performed well. European banks, which have 10 million online customers and a tradition of selling a broad array of financial services, are likely to jump in soon as well. Already, Yahoo! has forged alliances with France's Banque Directe, Britain's National Westminster, Spain's Banco Santander, and Germany's Deutsche Bank. "The online financial portal space in Europe is a golden opportunity," says Therese Torris, chief analyst at Forrester Research in Amsterdam. Torris says FT.com holds an early lead thanks to its strong brand, but she isn't counting out newcomers such as Interactive Investor and GlobalNet.
Remember, David did slay Goliath.