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June 7, 2011, 12:30 p.m.

The Pilates approach: How CNN is trouncing its competitors on the web

For the past several years, news outlets that cover the media industry have focused predominantly on television ratings when reporting on the cable news wars — a metric that, at least until recently, has been almost exclusively dominated by the Fox News Channel. But underlying all the ratings horse-race stories has been a burgeoning thread of discussion on one metric that Fox isn’t ruling: online readership.

Using numbers from multiple analytics firms, it has long been apparent that CNN beats not only its cable news competitors on the web, but nearly every other major news source, as well. According to comScore, CNN received an average of 8.5 million unique U.S. visitors a day for the first three months of this year, figures that dwarf MSNBC’s 7.4 million daily visitors and Fox’s 2.3 million. A comScore spokesman provided me with charts showing that CNN, with 75.9 million US visitors, is beaten only by Yahoo! News Network’s 88 million. In U.S. monthly uniques, CNN outperforms MSNBC.com (51 million), AOL News (40 million), Fox News (20 million), CBS News (16.4 million), and The New York Times (32.9 million).

Figures from Compete tell a similar story, though with radically different numbers — 27.7 million uniques for CNN, 18.3 million for The New York Times, and 14.7 million for Fox News. And unlike MSNBC.com, Yahoo!, and AOL, CNN doesn’t have a major news portal funneling traffic to its site.

Find your core

Why does CNN trounce all its competitors on the web? AdWeek took a stab at this question a year ago, suggesting that it might have to do with the demographics of CNN viewers and the idea that Fox News’ brand of opinionated journalism doesn’t automatically work well on the web. “People shouting at each other doesn’t translate to a mass audience online,” a source told AdWeek’s Mike Shields. But Meredith Artley, the managing editor of CNN.com, told me in a phone interview that the network owes its online success to what she calls the “Pilates strategy.”

“What that means, as someone who has friends who do Pilates but has never done it herself, is that it’s about strengthening your core and stretching into new areas,” she said.

The core, as she sees it, is breaking news. “But that’s not enough; you can’t do just that alone. You have to go beyond that. To that end, you have to stretch into new areas and try new things and innovate and play and experiment.”

Expand beyond your core

To do this, Artley created an enterprise team for CNN.com, people whose job isn’t just to break news, but also to work on bigger, broader stories. CNN has also been expanding its online opinion journalism, a section that Artley said has tripled its traffic in the last year. For this, it has brought in both on-air talent and columnists from other news outlets, a roster that includes CNN’s legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, and ESPN’S LZ Granderson. In May, CNN Opinion saw 18.4 million global page views, 62 percent more than last year.

To flesh out its coverage, CNN also launched several beat blogs, many of which provide more fluffy, conversational topics. Its Eatocracy food blog, for instance, once published an ode to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “There is something so simple yet dynamic about two pieces of bread, peanut butter, and jelly,” wrote Devna Shukla, a production assistant for CNN’s AC360. “I can’t even begin to calculate the number of PB&Js I’ve had over the last year, let alone my entire life.” That single post received 480 comments and 875 Likes on Facebook. And CNN’s blog network, overall, saw 129.3 million domestic page views last month.

Artley cited studies indicating that CNN’s brand loyalty drives more traffic than anything else. One, from Pew, found that CNN has the most loyal users in terms of the percentage of them who visit its site 10 times a month or more. (According to Comscore, the CNN Network is in the top five for average visits per user. And for the CNN.com domain itself, the site has more than 8.5 visits per user.) Another statistic from the study showed that CNN is less reliant on Google searches than any other news outlet. If a site depends less on outside traffic sources while also seeing an abundance of repeat visitors, one can conclude that a high percentage of its users are arriving by typing in its homepage URL. Artley backs that up: 75 percent of CNN’s traffic is direct, she said, meaning that only 25 percent comes from referrals. And direct traffic, most online editors would tell you, is the most coveted kind.

Play to your platforms

But what kind of content are CNN.com visitors coming to consume? All things being equal, Artley said, articles tend to get more overall traffic. But this wasn’t the case for the Japan earthquake earlier this year, for example, which provided CNN with a wealth of video and imagery to tell its story. Unsurprisingly, video views for CNN were much higher that month. But the death of Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, had almost no new video footage attached to it, and it generated much more interest in the site’s text-based stories about the incident. Still, though — and unsurprisingly for a TV-news site — video is, overall, a traffic-driver. In May, a CNN spokeswoman told me, CNN received 121.8 million video views, up 33 percent over last year.

With the Japan earthquake story, CNN also benefited greatly from iReport, its citizen journalism section. People who were living in Japan began uploading video from the quake and its resulting tsunami onto the site — content that helped CNN both online and on the air. The CNN spokeswoman told me that iReport alone drives about 20 million page views a month.

Perhaps just as notable are the metrics CNN has on its mobile users. In April, for instance, its site received over 200 million mobile views. (Compare that, Artley noted, to the LA Times, her previous employer — which chases 200 million views a month for its entire website.)

One of the reasons behind the massive traffic edge could be that CNN, unlike most of its competitors, doesn’t use Associated Press content in its news feeds. (It discontinued its subscription to the wire service about a year ago.) In many instances, several different news sites can be competing with the same exact AP story, meaning their audiences are more easily split, whereas CNN hosts original content for those same stories. “When you start to assess the question of why does CNN.com outperform not just the cable folks but the newspapers as well, one of the things we’re really proud of is that we don’t rely on that crack,” Artley said, laughing. “It can be a crutch, and for an organization as big and global as CNN, we don’t need to rely on that crutch. So the reporting is really a different take that you’re not seeing everywhere else.”

Whatever is causing CNN’s dominance in web traffic, as more and more consumers navigate toward reading their news online, its influence, both as a journalistic outlet and advertising platform, is likely to increase. As AdWeek put it in its article last year, “[Fox News'] lack of digital success could eventually undermine its influence in American news — particularly as a younger generation gravitates toward getting its headlines from iPhones and iPads rather than TV.” When this happens, CNN may be able to assert with confidence that it truly is, as it has told us in so many advertisements, America’s “most trusted name is news.”

POSTED     June 7, 2011, 12:30 p.m.
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