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June 15, 2011, noon

Does a new report mean doom and gloom for local online news? Maybe, but here are a few balancing factors

Matthew Hindman’s new paper showing miserably low levels of local online news consumption is a terrific addition to research on how journalism gets produced and consumed online. He found, using panel data from comScore, that local news sites received, on average, only about three pageviews per person per week in their local markets.

And that’s in total, adding up all local news sites — individual sites fared even worse. The largest local news site in a typical market reached only about 17.8 percent of local web users in a given month, and it drew only about five minutes of the typical web user’s attention during that month.

Nikki Usher summarized the report’s findings for us in a separate post. But while Hindman’s research is a welcome reminder of local online news’ limitations and failings, I think there are a number of factors that complicate his findings a bit. Here are four reasons why I think the doom and gloom that I expect to circle around this report might not be spot on.

comScore’s dataset isn’t perfect

Among the various traffic-measurement firms, comScore has a very solid reputation. But it is also subject to some of the criticisms that have historically faced Nielsen’s TV ratings, most notably that their sample may not be a representative one. For example, comScore panel data doesn’t measure mobile traffic. And it likely undercounts web traffic from people at work, which Pablo Boczkowski and others have shown to be where a disproportionate amount of online news consumption occurs. (Hindman, to his credit, highlights these problems with comScore’s dataset.)

And, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the kind of person willing to install comScore’s traffic-recording tool on their computers isn’t perfectly representative of the web-using public. The biggest news nerds might be underrepresented.

But the reality is these are quibbles, and Hindman’s larger point remains. Even if comScore is undercounting by a factor of three or four, we’re still talking about a small-numbers showing for local online media.

Reach does not mean impact

If raw readership totals equaled impact — on political discussion, on democracy, on the culture — then USA Today would be more important than The New York Times and Reader’s Digest would be more important than The New Yorker. Reaching the “right” people — and by that I mean the people who have disproportionate influence in political discussion, democracy, or culture — can make an outlet’s reach more potent than traffic numbers would suggest.

So for sites like MinnPost or Voice of San Diego, which write extensively about politics and local government, it’s possible to be both a must-read in the corridors of City Hall or the statehouse and still reach an audience that’s disproportionately influential.

Take MinnPost, for instance. According to Hindman’s analysis, 0.61 percent of all pageviews in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area went to local news sites. And only about 0.001 percent of total pageviews went to MinnPost (varying slightly by month).

But MinnPost’s Joel Kramer told us in March that, in January and February, MinnPost.com had received 921,000 visits. Each of those generated at least one pageview. The site has 5,700 daily email newsletter subscribers, 2,500 weekly email subscribers, and over 10,000 followers on Twitter.

In other words, while MinnPost may look like a rounding error in the overall scheme of Twin Cities web traffic, it is reaching many thousands of people. And even if those people are a small subset of the area population, a site like MinnPost can still have a significant positive impact on public affairs.

In Hindman’s previous book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, he advanced a largely similar argument based around political blogs. Here’s the book’s promo copy from its publisher:

Matthew Hindman argues that, though hundreds of thousands of Americans blog about politics, blogs receive only a miniscule portion of Web traffic, and most blog readership goes to a handful of mainstream, highly educated professionals. He shows how, despite the wealth of independent Web sites, online news audiences are concentrated on the top twenty outlets, and online organizing and fund-raising are dominated by a few powerful interest groups. Hindman tracks nearly three million Web pages, analyzing how their links are structured, how citizens search for political content, and how leading search engines like Google and Yahoo! funnel traffic to popular outlets. He finds that while the Internet has increased some forms of political participation and transformed the way interest groups and candidates organize, mobilize, and raise funds, elites still strongly shape how political material on the Web is presented and accessed.

You can see the DNA of that argument in the current paper. And I think Hindman’s right: If your goal for online media is to create a digital version of the New England town hall, then yes, you’re going to be disappointed that online media creates its own new class of media elites. But I’d argue that, if we’re judging online media’s value or worthiness to democracy, it’s important to do so through a lens that isn’t merely transposed from the days of big broadcast towers and giant metro newspapers.

I think, even taking Hindman’s facts on political blogs, that it’s impossible to argue that they haven’t had a significant impact on political discussion in America — despite their comparatively small readership and their power-law popularity structure. So I’d caution against anyone drawing similar conclusions based on this new paper about online media more broadly.

Local news does not equal “news”

It’s worth noting that, while the comScore data found little interest in local news, it did find substantially more interest in national and global outlets. Hindman’s analysis found that local news made up only about 19 percent of all pageviews to news sites measured. (The remainder is only defined as “nonlocal news sources,” but we can presume that a healthy chunk of that is made up of the big national news brands: CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, etc.)

The numbers were even more lopsided when you look at minutes spent rather than pageviews. Only about 15 percent of all time spent consuming online news was spent on local news sites.

While that’s not great news for local sites, it does indicate that people’s interest in online news more broadly isn’t in the same state of disrepair as their interest in local news. And it perhaps speaks to the wisdom of strategies that try to inject local news into national news brands — for instance, what MSNBC.com is doing with EveryBlock, or what AOL is trying to do in marrying HuffPo to Patch and Outside.in.

Watch your comparison sphere

One final note: Be cautious about reading too much into any statistics that look at online news as a fraction of total time spent online. That’s putting online news in competition not just with other traditional content sources, but with Gmail, and Facebook, and shopping on Amazon, and all the other bazillion things we do all day on the Internet. In other words, as more and more activities that traditionally took place outside the browser move inside it, it only makes sense that online news’ share might not keep up — even if online news consumption were held constant. (For example, if online news reading went up 10 percent, but total online usage went up 100 percent, online news as a share of online activity would drop — even though people were consuming more online news. Time spent shopping for shoes at Zappos shouldn’t count against time spent reading local headlines.

Again, that’s not to invalidate (or even to argue against) Hindman’s findings; his raw numbers of minutes spent are plenty low enough on their own, even without any comparison to the rest of the web. But if we are going to judge online news consumption, let’s use the numbers that make the most sense.

Separately, because the FCC-funded research process is pleasantly open, you can read Hindman’s initial draft of his paper, a peer review of it by Iris Chyi at the University of Texas, Hindman’s response to Chyi’s remarks, and the final version. Probably only of interest to the nerdiest of news nerds, but Chyi raises some good points.

POSTED     June 15, 2011, noon
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