Newspaper-site traffic: Weaker than it looks
If printed newspapers were discontinued, there would be several reasons for publishers to worry about whether they could sustain, let alone grow, the traffic on the websites that would become their primary business.
One of the biggest reasons to question the potential for standalone newspaper sites has been identified by Greg Harmon of Belden Interactive, who since 2001 has polled 300,000 newspaper website users in 250 markets across the country.
In his work, Harmon has discovered quite consistently that fully two-thirds of the visitors to newspaper sites say they visited the site because they are readers of the print newspaper.
This suggests that newspapers have taken good advantage of the strength of their brands and the visibility they command in the markets they serve. But what would happen if the print product went away?
A case could be made that website readership would rise, because readers would have few, if any, other places to get local news. However, it is unlikely the vacuum created by the disappearance of the print paper would remain unfilled for long.
As new print and online media moved in to compete with the standalone newspaper site, the newspaper site, stripped of the advantages that formerly differentiated it from all other rivals, would become just one of thousands of URLs competing for attention on the busy, noisy web.
Fighting to gain visibility, traffic and advertising, a standalone newspaper website would be burdened by the second major problem turned up consistently in Harmon’s research: Young consumers, who represent the future of any media business, spurn newspaper websites.
Year after year since 2001, Harmon reports, the average age of newspaper website visitors has been rising as the number of readers under the age of 35 declines.
As of 2007, half of newspaper site visitors were 45 or older. By comparison only 34.4% of the U.S. population is 45 or older, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
On the other hand, the number of younger visitors to newspaper sites is falling. While 46% of newspaper site visitors were between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2001, the number dropped to 27% in 2007, according to Harmon’s research.
The third reason to be concerned about the strength and stability of standalone newspaper website readership is that the bulk of the users not referred to newspaper sites by the print product are relatively fickle visitors who Harmon calls “fly-bys.”
Fly-bys, which represent about a third of a newspaper site’s traffic, are people who were referred to the newspaper’s site from a link at Google, Digg, Drudge, Huffington Post or someplace else. They drop in long enough to glance at a specific article on the newspaper site and then are gone. They are not the same as the loyal readers prized by either print or online advertisers.
The fly-by phenomenon explains why the Newspaper Association of America reported an average 12.3% increase in unique visitors to publisher websites in 2008 but only a 2.4% increase in the time that visitors spent on the sites. Industry-wide, time on site last year averaged 44 minutes and 1 second per month, or less than 1.5 minutes per day in a 30-day month, according to the NAA.
In the aftermath of the presidential election, which generated tons of extra traffic for all manner of news sites last year, the time spent on newspaper sites has fallen considerably. Statistics from Nielsen Online, the same independent agency the NAA used to prepare its report, show that the average time spent on the 13 largest newspaper websites in December was only 27 seconds per day vs. the 1.5-minute average reported by the NAA for all of 2008.
As illustrated in the table below, the average engagement at newspaper sites trails significantly the time spent at places like Facebook, Drudge Report, YouTube and even the top two cable news networks.
While it may not be fair to expect people to devote as much time to a newspaper website as they spend socializing on Facebook or watching videos at YouTube, the substantial difference in the level of user engagement demonstrates the profound failure of newspapers to create the sort of products that would attract young readers to their websites.
The inability of newspapers to connect with younger consumers matters, because the consumption patterns set today will influence the future prospects for readership, regardless of whether the product is delivered in print, on a computer screen, on an iPhone, on a Kindle, on ePaper or on whatever gizmo emerges as the next big thing.
If the interactive products produced by newspaper companies lack relevance and appeal for younger consumers, the economic deterioration of the industry will accelerate as older readers literally die off.
The reason young people don’t gravitate to newspaper websites is that most sites are more newspaper than web: staid, static and largely un-interactive.
Modern users expect to personalize their experience by picking the content they consume and choosing when, where and in what medium they consume it. They want to interact with a site (and other visitors to it) by posting original thoughts, commenting on the thoughts of others, ranking articles and voting on the credibility of a story and even its author.
In other words, 1995-style shovelware won’t cut it.
Before newspapers stop their presses in perpetuity, they need to fast-forward to the interactive age. Really, really fast.
Next: Can newspapers make the digital transition?