Good news? Not really. »Nieman Journalism Lab


The Newspaper Association of America trumpeted the release of first quarter online audience data last week with the headline: “Newspaper Website Audience Grows More Than Ten Percent in Q1 to 73.3 million visitors, “followed by the glowing caption:” Newspaper Websites Set Records for Audience, Pageviews and Active Reach; Latest Scarborough Research: Newspapers Attract Key Demographics in Print and Online . “

Forgive me, then, for reading and questioning the details and putting the data into context, which the NAA does not do.

ANA Reports:

  • First quarter newspaper website traffic was reported at 73.3 million unique visitors (average per month) by Nielsen *.
  • That’s 43.6% of all Internet users in the United States, and up 10.5% from the same period last year.
  • Page views increased from 3.1 billion per month in the first quarter of last year to 3.5 billion in 2009.
  • NAA CEO John Sturm suggests this indicates “digital success.”

The context:

  • Each of the top three news destinations on the web (MSNBC, CNN, and Yahoo! News) individually each attracted more than half of unique visitors from across the newspaper industry in March. Year over year, MSNBC grew 9%, CNN 4% and Yahoo! News by 16%.
  • Yahoo! News alone gained 5.2 million unique visitors in March, or nearly 70 percent of the overall newspaper industry gain.
  • Newspaper pages viewed at 3.5 billion per month represent less than one percent of total pageviews in the United States (386 billion in February).
  • The time spent on newspaper sites in February, 43 minutes, 9 seconds per month by NAA / Nielsen, compares to the total online time of 61 hours, 11 minutes and 56 seconds per person in the United States. This means that newspaper sites only capture the attention of the American online audience 1.2% of the time.
  • The total online audience for the United States (what Nielsen calls “the universe of active digital media”) in February was 167 million people. As the NAA notes, 43.6 percent of that audience visited a newspaper website, but given that traffic to the newspaper site is only about 1.6 page views per reader per day, many unique newspaper sites clearly represent unique traffic.

NAA further reports:

  • A Scarborough study indicates that over the past week, newspaper websites were visited by 34% of Americans with graduate degrees, by 32.4% of those who bought a home, co-op or condominium in the past year, by 28.2 percent of those with household income of $ 100,000 or more, and by 29.9 percent of those in management, business or financial.

The context:

  • The flip side of these numbers doesn’t impress: around 70% of postgraduates, homebuyers, employees over $ 100,000, and executives did not visit a newspaper website. But there’s a good chance they’ve visited websites other than newspapers, as we know that over 40 percent of Americans now report getting most of their domestic and international news online.
  • However, among the demographic groups highlighted by the NAA, it seems they still receive most of their news on paper: for each group, the NAA data on Scarborough indicates that more than 80% have read the newspaper under printed or online form within the last seven days. And as I explained before, however you slice that data up, that means the bulk of newspaper content consumption is printed.

The inescapable conclusions are:

  • While newspapers have a substantial online audience, this is nothing like the audience attention newspapers held in the pre-Web era;
  • Newspaper websites are far from dominant in the online news arena;
  • The newspaper’s website audience is insignificant compared to the total web engagement.

While this is a big part of why newspapers feel they haven’t been able to “monetize” their size enough, the question is, what can publishers do about it?

In light of the data put into context, it is ludicrous for them to consider a toll booth to charge readers in one way or another (other than for carefully selected premium content) – any simple barrier of paywall would be used to reduce their online audience share. even more. Likewise, any effort to prevent or restrict Google and others from aggregating content will backfire, as newspaper sites would lose substantial traffic in the absence of traffic generated by aggregation links.

The answer must be to develop ways to attract more viewers to newspaper websites, not to impose barriers that restrict traffic. If they want to move in the direction of growing demand rather than restricting it, there are many things that newspapers can do. Listing them is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ve presented my suggestions quite consistently (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10), as have my fellow bloggers here at Nieman and elsewhere. At Eric Schmidt said at the NAA convention a few weeks ago, building an “engine of innovation”. If newspapers could innovate to, say, double the number of pageviews online next year, rather than growing again by just 10%, their additional advertising revenue would far exceed the potential gain from online subscriptions or micropayments.

Thus, in the fundamental debate currently unfolding over ‘getting readers to pay’, newspapers must take into account not only the simple economics of online content, but also the fact that their own market share relative to the rest. The online information market offers them very little pricing power, so this is the side of the equation that they must grapple with.

Photo by Raoul Trifan, used under a Creative Commons license.


* Duly noted: Judging by previous comments, some readers do not believe the Nielsen number is valid and prefer anecdotal evidence of their own cohort’s boating habits. But for now, I’ll stick to Nielsen and Scarborough data as representing broad and consistent research methodologies.

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