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The Fight for Audience: Newpaper Websites in May

As newspapers continue their efforts to squeeze out revenue from their online properties, one of the questions editors are asking is what differentiation they should have between print and dot com.  Some argue that online being free; print should offer something special to add value to those paying for delivery.  Others counter that the Internet is the industry’s future and to be out in front requires putting richer content there – online where there are no page space restrictions and a bigger audience to capture.

In late May and early June, the Washington posted irked some readers and fired up the debate by taking a course seemingly supportive of door number two.   On May 31st and June 1st, the paper ran a large two part investigative report on an unsolved Washington, D.C. murder mystery.  The story was published only online leaving some print readers frustrated and others unaware they’d even missed a story until they saw the backlash.

In the weeks since passed, the paper has been criticized by some and lauded by others for its choice. The decision’s been justified by the scope of the article and its size (its narrow subject and long length argued to be ill suited for print), and castigated for the same reasons.  

Newspapers are fighting in an increasingly competitive online global arena and it’s clear there is no easy answer for how to succeed.  There’s so much information beamed at audiences.  To stand out from the volume (below cost and consistently) is a difficult task.  It doesn’t take much more than a passing glance at a newspaper’s financial statements to see that.  But new Nielsen data seems to add even more color to how complex the marketplace has become, and for that matter, how difficult the editorial decisions are that editors face.   

As part of a monthly tracking project, Nielsen monitors the amount of time visitors spend on newspaper websites. This data is shown comparatively to the same period from a year ago.  The results from May were recently published exclusively at Nielsen’s subsidiary, Editor and Publisher.  

Tracking this time audiences spend provides a measure of engagement instead of the audience scale reported with other metrics like unique viewers.  The results:  Of the top thirty papers, 17 saw declines in the time an average viewer spent on the property during May.  More than 50% didn’t hold viewer attention for as long as last year.

That might be insignificant.  Being one month only, the May data isn’t enough to establish a trend.  Moreover, to a certain extent, the quality of news can account for the results.  A newspaper’s traffic is understood to ebb and flow with the nature of the news events happening in the world.  An election year, or a series of one of a kind events, can peak interest one month and not the next.  Such things can easily account for a few minutes in audience engagement changes year over year. On the other hand, the data could be telling.  As a basis for hypothesis, it might demonstrate how hard it is becoming be to retain audience attention in a commoditized news market where being first with a scoop isn’t always possible and offering depth and insight isn’t always affordable. In an echo chamber with a thousand versus and a thousand more choruses, what do you listen to?

From the Nielsen report, the biggest of the major national brands – the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today – held relatively even in May compared to the prior year.  Average audience viewing times for all three remained within a minute of the time spans reported for last year.  Neither growth nor shrinkage.  The L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune and also held steady.

On the fringe, in others markets, areas where local news is thought to be a more important draw, the results were different – maybe hinting competition with national and global news sources is taking a toll.  The Seattle PI, now trying to make it without a print component, saw its average audience engagement time fall by nearly 50% (from almost fifteen and half minutes to less than eight).  Politico,, and also dropped significantly.

Interestingly, (though maybe explained by the news comparison and not the audience), the Washington Post saw its time’s drop too. The Post site saw average audience time spent fall from more than sixteen minutes in May 2008 to just under eleven.  Significant? Maybe. Maybe it was even a factor in the editorial decision (though the standard justification is one of limited print space in the paper edition versus unrestricted online "real estate.")

The paper’s that found the winning mix, at least in May, were the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle (   The Star Tribune beat all other papers by a large margin with average audience members spending almost forty seven and a half minutes on the site (up from a little over twenty seven minutes last year).  The Star Tribune audience spent more time than the average audience member at any other paper by far. The New York Times was a distant second with audiences spending just 27:34 there.   (WSJ audiences spent 8:54).

With the debate raging about newspaper’s future and whether content online will eventually end up being paid for, or remain ad supported – this kind of data seems increasingly worth keeping an eye on.

The full audience viewing times is available at Editor& Publisher here. The results for April and March can be found here and here respectively.

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