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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

The Newsonomics of time-on-site

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Parse out the numbers, and they’re quite puzzling.

The average news reader spends little time on newspaper-owned sites, from a 20 minutes a month or so on the New York Times site to eight to 12 minutes on most local newspaper sites. That’s minutes per month. Those numbers, as tracked by Nielsen and reported monthly by Editor and Publisher, are steady at best, showing, in fact, some recent decline. They are, literally, stuck in time.

Then, take the number of minutes Internet users spend on social sites. Nielsen’s January tally showed seven hours of usage a month on Facebook alone, in the U.S., blowing away all competition. That’s some 40 times more time spent on social sites than on any single news site.

Which is a bit deflating for those in the news business. So let’s try to get at what the numbers may be telling us.

Maybe that big Facebook number isn’t as important as we think. We all have long spent much more time in conversation, much of it idle, some of it about what we’re doing right now or plan to do (the “statusphere” of the pre-digital world) than we have in reading the news. So social-site time may replace water-cooler conversation time. Further, do those Nielsen numbers mean that someone is actively perusing Facebook walls (or Twitter feeds) until their eyes fall out — or that they are keeping windows open on their computers? Are they engaged in a way that advertisers care about?

Then again, if Facebook time is a proxy for our new information centers — where we go to find out what’s happening in the community and the wider world — then it is becoming the new home page. Recall how newspaper sites all put up “make us your home page” buttons more than a decade ago? Constructively, that’s what Facebook done, without the button. That’s not surprising; it’s the ultimate page about what we care about most: me. Sure, some of the posts tell us about the wider world, but a good 80 percent or more tell us something personal.

If social sites, including Twitter, are a new center — Nick Negroponte’s “Daily Me” morphed — that’s a new challenge, and maybe opportunity, for the news industry. The challenge: getting the news to where the readers are hanging out, and figuring out to monetize there. The opportunity: If properly seeded in the social sites, the readers themselves do the (free) marketing and distribution of the content. The early tests of Facebook Connect appear promising here, though too few news companies are experimenting at any kind of scale. (See “The Newsonomics of social media optimization“.)

Now, let’s look at the Newsonomics of time-on-site — how well such time is monetized.

We’ll do some extrapolating with Facebook, to figure out what 2010 might look like. Let’s start with January numbers of 113 million U.S. users and seven hours time spent. Let’s be conservative and say for the year, it ends up with 120 million users and the same seven hours. That’s 84 hours a year for the 120 million, or a little over 10 billion hours of time spent.

For newspapers, let’s use one of the higher-achieving companies for comparison. The New York Times has been averaging about 20 million monthly uniques. It’s time-on-site varies considerably, with the news (!). Let’s give it 25 minutes a month on average. That’s 5 hours a year, or in total, about 100 million hours.

So, in time spent, the Times is less than one percent of Facebook.

Now, let’s look broadly, and quickly, at revenue. The Times’ 2009 digital revenue: about $342 million. Or $3.42 for each hour spent on the site.

Facebook’s revenue numbers are unannounced, but smart industry speculators put its 2010 number at about an even billion dollars. Or about a dime an hour of time spent.

$3.42 vs 10 cents. The Times is monetizing its time on site 34 times better than Facebook.

The Times and other big established news brands will say that’s more than fair, given the attention of the audience, the premium nature of the content and the demographics of the audience. Facebook, and its financial and spiritual advisors, will tell you that’s all upside. They’d point to yesterday’s partnership announcement with (Adobe’s) Omniture on ad placements as just one small step to a large revenue future.

Photo by Robbert van der Steeg used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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John Wihbey    
When journalists factcheck politicians (or don’t), how to flag bad behavior on social media, and getting past slactivism: all that and more in this month’s roundup of the academic literature.