In a routine television interview in October, the UK environment minister, Owen Paterson, was asked whether he had moved the goalposts by changing how the success of the government’s badger cull would be judged.

“That’s not right at all,” he protested. “The badgers have moved the goalposts.”

That choice of words was soon mocked by a number of British news websites, but one digital upstart, UsVsTh3m, decided to go further – designing an online game where readers could take Mr Patterson’s words to heart by shooting a football at goalposts carried by badgers.

“[The interview] was at 11am, and at 3pm we had a game online,” said Malcolm Coles, product director of Trinity Mirror, which launched UsVsTh3m earlier this year.

The site is one of several online publications changing how news is delivered, and reporting significant growth in audiences.

It also shows how even publishers such as Trinity Mirror, which were slow in reacting to the rise of digital media, are now seeking to emulate the ad-funded success of MailOnline, the Daily Mail’s website.

UsVsTh3m reported 7m unique users in November, up from 3m the previous month.

Another upstart, Buzzfeed, which launched in the UK this year with its mix of pictures, lists and off-the-wall political coverage, said it had 10m British unique users in the country in November.

“You can go from a standing start to being an established player in the British media scene,” said Carla Buzasi, editor in chief of the Huffington Post UK, an online-only blog and news site.

“Five or 10 years ago people wouldn’t have thought that was possible.”

The Tab, a collection of tabloid-style websites for university students set up with £200,000 of funding, said it had 1.3m unique users in November.

The true reach of these sites is contested, however.

Visitor figures quoted by the sites are often based on Google Analytics, while consumer surveys by Nielsen and ComScore suggest significantly lower readership.

“You’ve always got to be wary of the numbers,” says Will Yarker, a consultant with Deloitte.

Readership figures also have to be taken in conjunction with data about how long readers spend on a site, and how often they return. Several sites now measure their success by how much content users share with their friends.

The larger question is whether the upstarts can attract advertisers as easily as readers.

UsVsTh3m has no advertising as yet. “We’ve been deliberately chasing [users] first and thinking about monetisation second,” said Mr Coles, echoing the mantra of Silicon Valley start-ups.

The Tab runs traditional banner ads from Amazon and others, which generate low revenues in part because of automated exchanges.

It is hoping for more innovative deals with letting agencies and recruiters targeting the student market.

The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed have both embraced native advertising where specific articles and videos are tailored to individual brands.

“Native ads are very exciting to people,” said Paul Armstrong, a digital consultant. “The issue is longevity. Nobody knows where [these sites] are going.”

In the new sites’ favour are their modest overheads. The Huffington Post’s UK site employs about 25 staff and is now breaking even, according to Ms Buzasi.

The Tab has six employees, and a collection of student journalists around the country.

UsVsThem has about four employees – and it would have been shut down had it not reached 500,000 unique users in its first three months, said Mr Coles.

That puts them in a different position to MailOnline, the world’s most read newspaper website on some measures, which has a larger body of reporters. MailOnline had revenues of £41m in the year ending September, although it remains lossmaking overseas.

Another strength of the new sites is that their diverse content reaches many different demographics sought by advertisers, in part because it goes well beyond traditional news.

Only 37 per cent of visitors to UK online news sites are interested in national politics, compared to 50 per cent in Germany and 60 per cent in the US, according to a YouGov poll earlier this year.

“There’s an enormous amount of incredibly patronising online content aimed at students,” said Jack Rivlin, who cofounded The Tab.

The key for such sites is how readily their content is shared through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. That, says Mr Rivlin, allows them to take advantage of “reader promiscuity”.

But it could also be a weakness, meaning “business is still highly reliant on networks that it has little-to-no control over,” said Mr Armstrong, the digital consultant.

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