The fundamental problem with newspapers’ online endeavors.

olnIt’s no secret that the newspaper industry has been struggling with finding a lucrative business model to augment or replace the traditional print medium supported by subscriptions and advertising.

The problem is, their efforts are thwarted by market realities at every intersection, setting up the potential for head-on crashes everywhere.

In October, the results of an analysis conducted by several University of Texas researchers were published that illustrate the big challenges involved.

The researchers pinpointed 2007 as the year in which most large newspapers’ online versions had been available for about a decade, meaning that they had become “mature” products. The evaluation looked at the total local online readership of the Top 50 American newspapers, and found that nearly all of them have been stagnant in terms of growth over the past decade.

Even worse, since 2011 more than half of the papers have actually lost online readership.

The issue isn’t that people aren’t going online to consume news; the precipitous drop in print newspaper subscriptions proves otherwise. The problem is that many consumers are going to news aggregator sites – places like Yahoo News, CNN.com and other non-newspaper websites – rather than to sites operated by the newspapers.

That leaves online newspapers attracting disappointing advertising revenues that can’t begin to make up for the loss of those dollars on the print side. To wit, the University of Texas study reported that total newspaper industry digital ad revenues increased only about 15% between 2010 and 2014, going from ~$3 billion to ~$3.5 billion.  That’s pretty paltry.

The problem goes beyond ad revenue concerns too. In a market survey conducted in 2012, two-thirds of newspaper subscribers stated that preferred the print version of their daily newspaper over the web version.

I find that finding totally believable. I am a print subscriber to The Wall Street Journal whereas I read other newspaper fare online.  My daily time spent with the print WSJ ranges from 30 minutes to an hour, and I peruse every section of the paper “linearly.”  It’s an immersive experience.

With online newspaper sites, I hunt for one or two topics, check out the headlines and maybe a story or two, and that’s it. It’s more a “hit and run” operation, and I’m out of there in five minutes or less.

The notion of carefully picking my way through all of the menu items on an online newspaper’s navbar? Forget it.

And with such a tentative relationship with online newspapers, do I want to pay for that online access? Nope.

Magnify that to the entire market, and the web traffic stats show the same thing, which is why online advertising revenues are so underwhelming.

Once again, the optimistic goals of newspaper marketers are running up against cold, hard reality. The fact is, people don’t “read” online in the traditional sense, and they’re quick to jump from place to place, in keeping with the “ADD” most all of us have developed in our online behaviors.

There just isn’t a good way that newspapers can take their product and migrate it to the web without losing readers, losing ad revenue – and indeed, losing the differentiation they’ve built for quality long-form journalism.  And so the conundrum continues …

What about your print vs. online newspaper reading habits?  Are your experiences different from mine?  Please leave a comment for the benefit of other readers.

Election Campaign News Consumption: What a Difference a Dozen Years Makes

Trends in Campaign News Sources (Pew Surveys)One of the interesting aspects of the U.S. presidential elections that come along every four years is the opportunity to see how Americans are getting their political news. That’s because the Pew Research Center for People & the Press conducts a survey every presidential election year to find out those very behaviors.

The 2012 survey of ~1,500 voting-age Americans older was fielded earlier this year. It found that fewer people are following news about the campaign compared to four years ago.

That’s hardly surprising, given that the “heady and hopeful” campaign rhetoric of 2008 has given way to nothing more than a long, hard slog in 2012. 

What’s more interesting is to see how campaign news consumption behaviors have changed.

If we compare survey results this year against those of 2000 – a dozen years ago – it quantifies what many suspect has been happening: a big decline in traditional news sources like newspapers and network news in favor of the Internet.

In response to Pew’s question as to where consumers are regularly getting their campaign news, here are the comparisons between 2000 and 2012:

  • Cable TV news: Rose from 34% in 2000 to 36% in 2012
  • Internet: Jumped from 9% to 25%
  • Local TV news: Declined from 48% to 32%
  • Network news: Declined from 45% to 26%
  • Local newspaper: Dropped from 49% to just 20%

[Interestingly, the Internet as a source for campaign news has actually leveled off since 2008, when 24% reported it being a regular source for news. In the previous four-year cycle, that source had doubled in popularity.]

The most popular Internet sources for campaign news are the usual suspects:

  • CNN: ~24%
  • Yahoo: ~22%
  • Google: ~13%
  • Fox News: ~10%
  • MSN: ~9%
  • MSNBC (NBCNews): ~8%

But what about social media, the newest kid on the block when it comes to news sources? The Pew survey reveals that social media are being used by a pretty limited audience for presidential politics: ~20% report that they regularly or sometimes receive campaign information from Facebook, and only ~5% say the same about Twitter.

More details on the Pew survey – perhaps more than you ever wanted to know – can be found here.