Analyzing the online news audience

The Shorenstein Center, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, has issued an intriguing new study on user trends at news sites. You can read the whole thing (pdf) here, but let me offer a few observations and comments.

1. The study, titled “Creative Destruction: An Exploratory Look at News on the Internet,” prepared by Shorenstein’s Tom Patterson, shows that a trend we’ve already seen with newspapers’ print editions is happening online as well: the national newspapers (the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal) are doing much better than large and medium-size regional dailies, whose growth is stagnant. In fact, the study finds that the Times now accounts for “well over 10 percent of the online newspaper audience.”

This is serious — but not, I would argue, quite as serious as it might appear at first glance. Nor do I think it represents any major diminution in people’s interest in local news. Consider:

  • In most parts of the country, the national papers (especially the Post) are not as easy to get in hard copy as they are online. The Web sites of the national papers represent huge growth potential that simply isn’t available to regional papers, since getting the Baltimore Sun or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (to name two of the papers included in the study) in print is easier and more convenient than reading it on the Web.
  • Readers outside a regional paper’s coverage area aren’t all that interested in what that paper has to offer. Nearly all of a regional paper’s target audience already has the option of easy home delivery. An exception that proves the rule: the Globe’s Boston.com might be the most popular regional news site in the country (depending on whether you consider the Los Angeles Times to be a regional or a national newspaper). And a lot of that, Globe insiders will tell you, is because of the “Red Sox diaspora.”
  • Most regional papers’ Web sites fall far short of the Times’ and the Post’s, which are models of how to do online journalism. Thus readers have an additional incentive to stick to print.

2. Shorenstein reports that the Web sites of PBS and local public television stations are losing audience. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I will point out that news is not the dominant programming paradigm on public television. Perhaps what this really means is that “Arthur” and “Sesame Street” aren’t as popular as they used to be. Certainly “The NewsHour” site is looking pretty good these days.

3. But we also learn that NPR and local public radio stations, which are far more news-oriented than public television, are losing online audience as well. And though I don’t pretend to know why, I do wonder whether podcasting has something to do with it. If you go to the podcast directory at the iTunes Store, you’ll see that NPR programs do very well. (Actually, so does the aforementioned “NewsHour.”) It could well be that the most Net-savvy of public radio’s listeners are going straight for the podcasts and not bothering to visit the Web sites. Podcasts are powerful; streaming audio (and video) is a loser.

Besides: I’m willing to bet that more than 90 percent of public radio is consumed in people’s cars. Even though public stations like Boston’s WBUR (90.9 FM) are trying to beef up their Web presence, the Web-print synergy that exists in the newspaper world has no analogue when it comes to radio.

4. The Shorenstein study finds that the growth of Digg.com is off the charts. The report describes Digg as an aggregator not much different from Google News or Yahoo! News, but that’s not quite right. Digg is a social-networking site that allows users to submit news stories that the community then votes on. Those that get the most votes rise to the top.

The readers’ choices tend to be tech-oriented, and those that aren’t can often be pretty juvenile. But the Internet, especially in its Web 2.0 incarnation, is all about community, conversation and participation, and Digg.com has found a way to apply that to news. There are lessons to be learned from that.

Update: GateHouse Media’s Howard Owens calls the Shorenstein report “seriously flawed,” and points to this for another perspective.

One thought on “Analyzing the online news audience

  1. Howard Owens

    This report is seriously flawed. Anybody with real data knows it’s completely wrong about newspaper site traffic. Local news sites are growing traffic just fine.There are questions about the methodology they used.Here’s more information.

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