Newspapers: A message from users in 68-foot tall flaming numbers

As the great paid content debate of 2009 has played out, we’ve had a lot of assertions about what users should pay for without much clarity about what they would pay for or much about their habits. My gut feeling is that users will pay for certain types of content but that it will be extremely difficult to simply monetise existing content or attempt to create false scarcity by putting all content behind a paywall and drive readers back to print.

As a journalist who has chosen to make the internet my primary medium, my gut and quite a bit of my experience tells me that while I may be an early adopter, readers are moving more toward my habits than staying with or moving to print habits. However, I’m very careful not to generalise without data. My friends are all part of what I often refer to as the global geek collective. Our habits are our own and we shouldn’t assume that those habits are common to our audiences.

This week, however, new data appeared that made me feel slightly less like an outlier. The American Press Institute released the results of a survey of 2,400 news executives in the US. The event was invitation only, but Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism released the 80-slide presentation. It is a treasure trove of data and journalism bloggers have been slowing dissecting the data and the methodology all week.

Steve Outing highlighted a statistic that should give news executives and journalists pause. As Steve points out:

…the graphic shows that 75% of newspaper execs believe that if their content were no longer available on their website, online users would foremost turn to the print edition of the newspaper. Meanwhile, only 30% of online news users said they would turn to the print edition in such a case; the No. 1 choice (at 68% of respondents to a 2009 Belden survey) was to look to “other local Internet sites.”

Steve comes to the conclusion that “newspaper leaders remain delusional”. I might be a wee bit more generous and say that this is a clear message from users to newspaper owners in the US. However, not to put too fine of a point on it: This is a radical disconnect between the assumptions of publishers and the views of people who might have formerly been their audience.

Would the results be the same in the UK or other markets? I’d love to know. Suw and I often bemoan the lack of basic media research in the UK. In the US, the Pew Centers for the Internet and American Life and for the People and the Press do excellent basic research on internet usage patterns, attitudes towards the press and other media issues. The UK could really benefit from similar research.

Returning to the API-commissioned survey, the bloggers at Harvard’s Nieman Lab did an excellent job pulling out key bits of data from the survey.

Again, there is much food for thought. It’s important to note that the API commissioned the survey in the context of the meeting billed as the “Newsmedia Economic Action Plan Conference”, wherein the US newspaper industry tried to buy a clue as to how to survive the recession and rebuild a viable, sustainable business. Of course, Steve Brill and Co at Journalism Online have offered themselves up as the key to the glorious future of paid content online. They were one of several companies that provided proposals to publishers at the event.

Zach Seward provides this caveat about one of the companies responsible for the API survey, ITZ Publishing:

You’ll also want to apply a helping of salt because ITZ Publishing consults for Steve Brill’s pay-for-news firm Journalism Online, which just touted the results as an “API study” without noting its business interest.

The ‘frequency challenge’

The survey highlighted, yet again, what Steve Yelvington has been pointing to for years: The challenge of frequency for news websites.

In nearly all markets, newspaper websites receive 2.5 visits and 10 pageviews for each unique visitor.

Steve’s frequency challenge is this: High monthly (or even daily running average) unique figures for many websites obscure the fact that most of these visitors come infrequently and look at only a few pages. This is one of the reasons why, despite record numbers of visitors to news websites, it is proving difficult to translate this traffic into revenue. The recession and subsequent collapse in online and offline advertising is a slightly separate, but deadly, issue for news organisations.

As the survey found, the 2.5 visits and 10 pageviews a month figure is a pretty consistent figure across the industry. It’s grim, but it really highlights the amount of drive-by visitors coming to news sites via search engines and the high level of long tail activity on most news sites. The head of the tail is about 25% of readership, what the survey calls “core loyalists”. The survey found:

“Core loyalists,” who visit a newspaper 2-3 times a day for 20 days a month, comprise 25% of unique visitors. Not surprisingly, then, core loyalists account for 86% of pageviews and are “overwhelmingly local.”

Steve Outing’s and Zach Seward’s posts and Bill Densmore’s liveblog of the event are well worth reading for more context.

I’d like to see more demographic information about core loyalists. How old are they? Are they heavily weighted in older age groups? Is there evidence that these core loyalists are being replaced by readers over 30? Assuming that core loyalists are older – and there is evidence to support this – should newspapers focus on older readers? Unfortunately, we have good data that says that older readers aren’t being replaced. Focusing on a declining group of older readers is not a long-term strategy and it begs the question: Can news organisations provide compelling services that re-engage younger readers online or offline? Furthermore, if most of these services are digital, not an unrealistic assumption, can they build a business around these services?

The concept of ‘core audience’ as outlined in this study is difficult to translate to the British market because UK newspapers with national circulation don’t really have a loyal local audience unless one considers their London base as local. However, regardless of whether this data is relevant to the UK market, the pain being felt by newspapers, especially regional newspapers in the UK, is similar if not worse.

I’m still digesting these figures. I would say that they reinforce one of the points made by the Internet Manifesto out of Germany that has been making the rounds and some waves: “12. Tradition is not a business model.” As any journalist who gets out of the media bubble knows, the sense of importance, relevance and audience loyalty often expressed in the boardrooms of many news organisations is such happy talk that you have to wonder what’s in the tea and biscuits.

Reconnecting with audiences

Many of us have known for quite a while the problems that this survey flags up. Paid content advocates like Brill & Co will read into this that their promise to get 10% of online news audiences to pay for some kinds of content is achievable. However, this masks serious long term issues for news organisations. Our audiences are shrinking. They aren’t being replaced and while we have business-threatening short term economic issues we will have to quickly pivot to deal with these long term issues.

The biggest long term problem most news organisations have is declining trust and relevance. I have to agree with Michael Skoler, writing in the autumn edition of Nieman Reports.

Journalists are truth-tellers. But I think most of us have been lying to ourselves. … The news became less local and less relevant, and reporters became less connected to their communities. Surveys show a steep drop in public trust in journalism occurring during the past 25 years. … The truth is the Internet didn’t steal the audience. We lost it. Today fewer people are systematically reading our papers and tuning into our news programs for a simple reason—many people don’t feel we serve them anymore. We are, literally, out of touch.

One important step that we need to take to rebuild our businesses is to rebuild our relationship with our audiences. This is why I embraced blogging as a journalist and have continued to embrace more recent forms of social media. I saw an opportunity to improve my journalism and, by opening up to a conversation with our audiences, I saw an opportunity to reconnect with audiences and build a sense of loyalty. It is why I stress when I speak to journalists and editors that it is a mistake to believe that social media is fundamentally a technical problem for news organisations. I’ve seen excellent technical solutions that still fail because journalists won’t engage with their audiences. More journalists will need to take responsibility for rehabilitating this relationship. It’s not just about building a personal brand. It is more importantly about rebuilding trust. Without that, the economic solutions are meaningless short-term fixes.

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