The plight of the local American newspaper is well known at this point: Circulation is shrinking, print ad revenue is shrinking, and papers haven’t been able to make up the difference digitally.
But in a new paper released last week, Shorenstein Center fellow Matthew Hindman, an associate professor at George Washington University, says newspapers are far worse off digitally than most people think.
News sites attract about 3 percent of all web traffic, Hindman writes, and about 85 percent of that traffic goes to national news sites. That leaves local news organizations with about 15 percent of online news attention, or about half a percent of overall web traffic. And that terrain is further split among local papers, TV and radio stations. The average local newspaper only gets 5 minutes per month per web user, Hindman writes: “Local newspaper traffic is just a rounding error on the larger Web.”
The bottom line is that any successful strategy for digital local news requires sites to grow their audience. This is obviously true for sites relying on ad revenue — though local newspaper sites cannot expect the same level of ad revenue per person that larger websites earn. Audience growth is just as essential for plans that rely on selling subscriptions. The current core audience of local news sites is too small to provide digital sustainability. Visitors who spend just a few minutes a month on a site are not good subscriber prospects. Even nonprofit journalism efforts need to demonstrate that their work is reaching a broad audience in order to ensure continued funding.
In order to grow their audiences, Hindman says local newspapers must answer two related questions: How can they make news “stickier” compared to all the other content on the web? And how can local news sites attract some of the audience that currently only reads national news sites?
Hindman offers a number of possible solutions. His top priority: improving the technical experience of local news sites, speeding up load times and making them work well on mobile devices. He also recommends improving content recommendation systems and simply producing more content to populate their websites. Additionally, he suggests local news sites do more A/B testing, optimize content for social media, and produce more videos and multimedia.
All of these suggestions, of course, cost money and resources; Hindman acknowledges that “for newspapers money is exactly the issue, and everything-at-once is not a viable strategy.”
Newspapers need to think marginally, to identify the changes that provide the most stickiness for the least additional cost. Some strategies are so important that they should be implemented immediately. For any editors reading this: If your site is slow, you are bleeding traffic day after day after day. If your site does not work seamlessly on mobile or tablet devices, drop everything and fix it. If your homepage does not have at least some visible new content every hour, you are throwing away traffic. Fix
these problems first.
If you’d like more details on Hindman’s specific suggestions, here is a link to the full report.