Another newspaper post (with bad statistics!)

I thought this would make a good follow-up to my last newspaper post.

An interesting entry on the Nieman Jornalism Lab blog suggests that online newspaper readership is less significant than most people assume.  Martin Langveld runs some back-of-the-envelope numbers to suggest that only 3% of reading occurs online.

Color me skeptical.  First, I question some of his assumptions.  He uses data suggesting that there are 116.8 million readers Monday-Saturday, and 134.1 million on Sunday.  This assumes 2.1 readers per paper on weekdays, and almost 2.5 readers per paper on Sunday.  I don’t know if I buy it.  I’d like to know if that figure includes only home subscribers, or if it includes higher-volume subscribers like universities and hotels.  I expect the number of readers/paper is lower in these settings, but that’s just my gut feeling.

Even if we accept these figures, Langveld makes an “educated guess” that each reader views 24 pages per day, which seems quite high.  As far as I can tell, he has no basis for this guess.  He also assumes that readers spend an average of 25 minutes with their papers Monday-Saturday, and 35 minutes on Sunday.  Again, I’m guessing this figure is too high.

He goes on to argue that online advertising is overvalued, and that it’s not surprising that online revenue is less than 10% of total newspaper revenue.

His post was prompted by another writer who suggested that online metrics overstate the number of internet readers.  This is probably true.  A precursory glance at page views and unique visitors would likely indicate an inaccurately high rate of online readership.  That doesn’t make Langveld’s statistics any more believable, however.  When pressed, he states that halving the number of pages read or the amount of time spent would give online readership 7% of the page views, and 6% of the total viewing time.  Langveld seems to assume this is an insignificant difference, but I disagree.

Surprisingly, I agree with one of his final points:

The fact remains, of course, that not only is online revenue alone insufficient to sustain news operations, but the print operations of our larger newspapers, having lost most monopoly pricing power, are not sustainable either, recession or no recession.

Neither online ad revenue nor print circulation will cover the cost of a traditional newsroom.  As newspapers cut back on the “expensive” reporting in favor of cheaper content, I expect they’ll continue to lose readers.  I don’t have data on the demographics of newspaper readers, but I’m certain that younger readers favor online content.  I expect they’re more apt to use non-traditional news sources as well, rather than the big names in the newspaper business.  It’s no surprise that the big picture is an ugly one for newspaper companies.

The question remains:  How will journalism be funded in the 21st century?  Maybe the traditional approach of ad revenue and subscriptions isn’t totally broken, but newsrooms would have to get a lot cheaper.  Perhaps jettisoning the overhead of the print operations would help, but I don’t really know.  I’m certainly no expert on the intricacies of the newspaper business.  Anyone have any thoughts?


One Response to “Another newspaper post (with bad statistics!)”

  1. Tim Marco on April 16th, 2009 8:51 am

    I hadn’t seen that post for the journalism blog, but you seem to be right on in your critique of those numbers.

    I actually think that online ad revenues will never cover the cost of journalism. Of course, this is a complicated issue, but I think it boils down to the fact that traditional print advertising is categorically different from online advertising; the biggest difference being that the former pays the bills and the latter does not.

    Personally, I tend to think that there may be some life in the idea of micropayments, although there are definitely challenges to implementation of any such system.

    Off-topic: I see that you’ve more or less ditched Twitter and implemented your Facebook status for your blog. I’d be interested to hear about why/your experience with Twitter. So I don’t know if you take requests for the blog, but there is one.


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