Shoptalk: Why Newspapers Can?t Move Readers to Their Online Content

By: Martin Langeveld

While consumers spend an ever-increasing amount of time online (more than 200 million Americans currently are on the Web about 37 hours a month), newspapers have failed — after a decade and a half of trying — to figure out how to follow, or lead, their readership into the digital realm.

In an analysis first published at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, I found that nearly all consumption of newspaper content still happens in print. The fraction of the combined print and online newspaper audience that consumes newspaper content online remains in the low-to-mid single digits.

For the complete analysis, and a link to a spreadsheet with the underlying data, visit http://bit.ly/cKXzzr. The key findings (reflecting 2009 data) were these:

•    Page views in print (not a standard metric, but easily calculated based on circulation, survey data on readers per copy, and an assumed average of 24 pages read per issue), amounted to 70.602 billion monthly.

•    Page views online, as measured by Nielsen Online for the Newspaper Association of America, averaged 3.383 billion per month.

•    Of the combined print and online page views (73.985 billion), just 4.57% were online, the other 95.43% were in print.
But the current wisdom is that page views are not nearly as important as “engagement,” or time spent (and other interactivity) with content. Looking at the time metric for newspaper content:

•    Americans spent 78.471 billion minutes per month with printed newspapers (this assumes 25 minutes per reader per day with weekday editions, 35 minutes on Sundays).

•    At newspaper Web sites, they spent 2.535 billion minutes per month, according to the NAA/Nielsen data. That sounds like a lot, but it works out to just 69 seconds per visitor per day.

•    Of the 81.006 billion combined monthly minutes spent with newspaper content, 3.13% was on the Web, 96.87% was in print.
Compared with the same analysis a year ago, the online share of page views and time spent improved slightly — but only because the print metrics declined as a result of continuing circulation losses.

(In my 2009 and 2010 Nieman Lab posts on this topic, and their comment threads, I discuss the validity of several assumptions made in the analysis. While there is data supporting my pages-read and time-spent estimates, it’s clear that even if they are off by a factor of two or three, the online audience share is minuscule.)

And the picture is not improving. During the June 2009-February 2010 period, the Nielsen data for total page views, total time spent, pages viewed per session and time per unique visitor have all fallen gradually. (NAA and Nielsen say that the newspaper site metrics they’ve reported since June 2009 can’t be compared with earlier data because of methodology changes.)

So while newspapers continue to lose readership on the print side, that disappearing audience is not showing up at their Web sites. At best, the audience for online newspaper content is static, but since the total Web audience (also tracked by Nielsen) continues to grow, newspapers are actually losing audience share of the Nielsen-defined “active digital media universe,” slipping from 0.69% of page views and 0.56% of time spent in June 2009 to 0.63% of page views and 0.50% of time spent in February 2010.

Meanwhile, much effort and dialogue continues to focus on getting readers to pay for content and battling aggregators — energy that might better be spent figuring out how not to lose the sizeable remaining audience for newspaper content by keeping the current print readers in the fold as they, too, migrate to reading news online, albeit gradually. At the same time, newspapers also need to attract new, younger readers in the digital space.

The finding that most newspaper content is still consumed in print is not a strength — it’s a failure.

At the digital starting line in the 1990s, newspapers had the same opportunity to build online enterprises that Yahoo!, Google, eBay, Amazon, Craigslist and (later on) Facebook had, but the lucrative cash flow newspapers earned from print held them back, and continues to do so. While many newspaper organizations have paid lip service to “online-first” strategies, very few have taken steps to become truly digital enterprises — ones in which nearly all work is organized around digital delivery of content and advertising, in which building a digital audience (not “protecting print”) drives all strategic decisions, in which social media are leveraged to magnify reach and attention, and in which print becomes a niche sideline.

It’s still not too late to get started.

Martin Langeveld spent 30 years in newspaper management in western New England. He now is a marketing consultant, a principal in CircLabs, Inc, a startup developing news discovery tools, and he blogs at NiemanLab.com.

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Published: May 19, 2010

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