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April 26, 2009, 1:11 p.m.

Online newspaper audience growth: Good news? Not really.

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The Newspaper Association of America trumpeted the release of first-quarter online audience data last week with this headline: “Newspaper Web Site Audience Increases More Than Ten Percent In First Quarter To 73.3 Million Visitors,” followed by the glowing subhead: “Newspaper Web Sites Set Records for Audience, Page Views and Active Reach; Latest Scarborough Research: Newspapers Attract Key Demographics in Print and Online.”

Pardon me, then, for reading and questioning the details and putting the data in context, something the NAA doesn’t do.

NAA reports:

  • First quarter traffic to newspaper Web sites was reported as 73.3 million unique visitors (average per month) by Nielsen*.
  • That’s 43.6 percent of all U. S. internet users, and up 10.5 percent versus the same time last year.
  • Page views grew from 3.1 billion per month in last year’s first quarter, to 3.5 billion in 2009.
  • NAA CEO John Sturm suggests this points to “digital success.”

Context:

  • Each of the top three news destination on the Web (MSNBC, CNN and Yahoo!News) individually each drew more than half the unique visitors of the entire newspaper industry in March. Year-over-year, MSNBC grew 9 percent, CNN 4 percent, and Yahoo!News 16 percent.
  • Yahoo!News alone gained 5.2 million uniques in March, or nearly 70 percent of the gain of the entire newspaper industry.
  • Newspaper page views at 3.5 billion per month are less than one percent of total U.S. page views (386 billion in February).
  • Time spent on newspaper sites in February, 43 minutes, 9 seconds per month per NAA/Nielsen, compares with total time online of  61 hours, 11 minutes and 56 seconds per U.S. person.  This means newspaper sites get the attention of the U.S. online audience just  1.2 percent of the time.
  • The total U.S. online audience (what Nielsen calls the “active digital media universe”) in February was 167 million individuals.  As NAA does note, 43.6 percent of that audience visited a newspaper web site, but given that newspaper site traffic works out to only about 1.6 page views per reader per day, many of the newspaper site uniques are clearly represent one-time-only traffic.

NAA further reports:

  • Scarborough research indicates that in the past week, newspaper web sites have been visited by 34 percent of Americans with a post-graduate degree, by 32.4 percent of those who have bought a house, co-op or condominium in the past year, by 28.2 percent of those with household incomes of $100,000 or more, and by 29.9 percent of people engaged in management, business or financial occupations.

Context:

  • The flip side of those numbers don’t impress:  around 70 percent of post-graduates, home-buyers, $100,000+ earners, and managerial workers did not look at a newspaper web site.  But chances are, they did look at non-newspaper web sites, since we know that more than 40 percent of Americans now say they get most of their national and international news online.
  • Of the demographic groups highlighted by NAA, however, it appears they still get most of their news in print: for each group, NAA’s Scarborough data says that more than 80 percent have read the paper in print or online in the past seven days.   And as I’ve laid out before, no matter how you slice that data, it means that most of that newspaper content consumption happens print.

The inescapable conclusions are:

  • While newspapers have a substantial online audience, it is nothing like the audience attention owned by newspapers in pre-Web days;
  • Newspaper web sites are far from dominant in the online news sphere;
  • The newspaper site audience is insignificant comparee to total Web engagement.

While this goes a long way toward explaining why newspapers feel they have not been able to “monetize” their size sufficiently, the question is, what can publishers do about this?

In the light of the data as seen in context, it is ludicrous for them to be considering a tollbooth to make readers pay in some fashion (other than for carefully selected premium content) — any simple paywall barrier would serve to reduce their online audience share even more.  Similarly, any effort to prevent or restrict Google and others from aggregating content will backfire, since newspaper sites would lose substantial traffic in the absence of traffic driven by aggregator links.

The answer must be to develop means to attract more viewers to newspaper web sites, not to impose barriers that restrict traffic. If they care to move in the direction of building demand rather than constricting it, there are plenty of things newspapers can do.  It’s beyond the scope of this post to enumerate them, but I’ve put my suggestions out there pretty consistently (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10), as have my fellow bloggers here at Nieman and elsewhere.  At Eric Schmidt told the NAA convention a few weeks ago, build an “innovation engine.”  If newspapers could innovate their way to, say, doubling their online page views in the next year, rather than growing by just 10 percent again, their incremental advertising revenue would far outweigh the potential gain from online subscriptions or micropayments.

So in the fundamental debate now going on about “getting readers to pay,” newspapers need to consider not only the simple economics of online content, but also the fact that their own market share relative to the rest of the online news market provides them with very little pricing power, so that’s the side of the equation they must attack.

Photo by Raoul Trifan, used under Creative Commons license.

_______________

*Duly noted: Judging by prior commentary, some readers don’t believe in the validity of Nielsen number and prefer anecdotal evidence of the browsing habits of their own cohort.  But for now, I’ll stick with Nielsen and Scarborough data as representing broad and consistent research methodologies.

POSTED     April 26, 2009, 1:11 p.m.
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