Sobering Reality for News Outlets: Your Readers May Be Elsewhere 99% of the Time

Here’s a question for local news producers: What are your readers doing when they’re not visiting you?

That’s the question asked by Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center in an eye-opening study of three metro news websites based on data from the media analytics company Comscore. And it’s a particularly relevant question because the study showed that the three news sites commanded less than 1 percent of their desktop users’ total digital time.

The study, conducted for the Medill Local News Initiative, suggests that news outlets would be wise to broaden their view of their competition, and to analyze those competitors to learn more about what their own audiences want.

The Spiegel research was narrowly focused, looking primarily at desktop-only computer activity for an “apples to apples” comparison of Comscore data on the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star. Those three news organizations were involved in a separate Spiegel study that analyzed 13 terabytes of data and found a strong correlation between a regular reader habit and subscriber retention.

Tom Collinger, Executive Director of Medill's Spiegel Research Center, makes a point during a December 2018 conference with editors from the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star.

Both studies were shared with the three news outlets at a Northwestern conference in December run by the Medill Local News Initiative. The initiative was launched last year by the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications to bolster the financial sustainability and impact of local journalism.

Spiegel’s finding that desktop visitors to the three news websites spent more than 99 percent of their screen time elsewhere isn’t a knock on those particular outlets. “It is very likely that it is common” across metro markets, said Tom Collinger, Spiegel’s Executive Director.

How Small Shares Were Measured

For the study, Collinger analyzed anonymous data on visitors to each of the three news sites and then measured how much time they spent on that news site compared to the time they spent on other websites during that same month.

For the time period from April 2016 to October 2018, the percentage of Chicago Tribune desktop visitors’ internet time that went to the Tribune never got higher than 1.29 percent in a month and was 0.55 percent for the last month studied. For the Indianapolis Star, the high was 2.36 percent and the most recent month’s percentage was 0.52. For the San Francisco Chronicle, the high was 0.48 percent and the last month was 0.29. The San Francisco data included only the Chronicle’s site, and its free site was considered a competing site.

Each month’s percentages were based on all unique desktop visitors to the site that month. While frequent readers might spend far more than 1 percent of their time on the site, the over-all average would be reduced by people who visited only once during the entire month. The analysis measured only desktop visitors, not traffic from smartphones and tablets. While the study included time spent on streaming services, the version of the platform analyzed did not designate the content that was streamed.

One key takeaway: There’s a lot of competition out there. But Collinger noted that there is also hopeful news for news organizations: The total time spent on digital media keeps growing, with average daily hours spent online rising from 2.7 in 2008 to 5.9 in 2017. The choices for the digital audience – and its expectations – keep growing.

In addition to analyzing the three news outlets’ shares of their readers’ total minutes on desktop, Spiegel looked at the 100 websites most frequently visited by those visitors, this time based only on October 2018 behavior.

Chicago Tribune readers had an affinity for NPR, while visitors to the Indianapolis Star were interested in the NFL and San Francisco Chronicle readers liked to visit Airbnb.

Most of the 100 most-visited sites were the same for the three, with major web players like Google, Yahoo and Facebook. Only 15 of the top 100 visited by Tribune readers were not in the top 100 for either of the other two. Same for the Star – 15 of the top 100 were uniquely theirs. For the Chronicle, the number in their top 100 but not in the others’ was 23.

Among the findings: Time, National Public Radio and the Wall Street Journal were unique to the Tribune readers’ top 100.  Macy’s, the National Football League and were in the Star’s top 100 but not the others’, while the Public Broadcasting System, GoodReads and Airbnb were unique to the Chronicle readers’ list.

Redefining the Competition

“The history of local news media is thinking, well, my competition is the guy down the street,” Collinger said, but it’s smarter to realize that everything else on the web is a potential competitor because “it’s a fight for the time of every reader.”

Collinger offered three ways this type of analysis can provide actionable intelligence for news websites:

  • It can help news organizations better understand the content and engagement strategies that their readers find interesting on other sites, informing their own approach.
  • It serves as insight into content and presentation that a news outlet may want to avoid because someone else is already doing it, and doing it well.
  • And the review of other sites can reveal potential opportunities for partnerships with those sites that may not have ever been considered.

“It could be that you double down on your coverage of that thing,” Collinger said. “It could be that you quickly walk away from it. It could be that you partner with the enterprise there early, which is figuring out a way to do it. There are any number of strategies. [But] to operate as if that’s not happening is a shot at your foot.”

Also, spotting websites that climb into your audience’s top 100 might serve as a “powerful early-alert insight” into readers’ emerging interests. For example, Collinger said, only 0.29 percent of the Star’s readers visited the gaming site Twitch in 2016, but 8.8 percent did so two years later – a nearly 40-fold increase. This type of intelligence is valuable for news organizations that want to better understand the emerging interests of their audiences, Collinger said.

Fueling Content Strategy

James Muldrow, Comscore’s Senior Director of Product Management, endorsed a deeper journey into his firm’s data.

“Audiences have so many outlets to consume digital content that it’s more important than ever to understand their full digital journey,” Muldrow said. “Comscore data provides that window into where readers spend time when they aren’t engaging with a given publisher. That insight has the great potential to fuel content strategy and helps a publisher make content more compelling for target readers. We’re excited about the results of the Medill study and encourage publishers to use Comscore data to examine audiences and their interests beyond when they are directly consuming publisher content.”

Ken Doctor, a former Managing Editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and a nationally known news industry analyst, is skeptical of the notion that local news websites needed to consider every other website their competition.

“People on the internet don’t go on the internet saying, ‘Um, I’m going to go look at news sites.’ They do many things. The percentage devoted to news itself is a relatively small percentage,” said Doctor, putting that percentage at up to 15 percent of total minutes.

“The question is: Where are they getting local news?” Doctor said. “If you look at a lot of cities, a TV station that has an above-average digital presence will beat out a newspaper website in terms of digital minutes. … In about half of metro areas, TV stations do better than newspapers (online).”

No matter how a news outlet defines its rivals, it is missing opportunities if it doesn’t conduct what Collinger calls “more comprehensive competitive intelligence.”

There should be an intentional effort to gather this broader understanding of competitive forces.

Tom Collinger, Executive Director, Spiegel Research Center

“There should be an intentional effort to gather this broader understanding of competitive forces,” Collinger said. “There should be somebody who’s eating and sleeping Comscore data supplemented by other things. But eating and sleeping it in order to be able to say, ‘Here’s what’s changing among the news and information appetites of our readers as well as how they’re spending time differently than they did last week, last month, six months ago.’”

But Doctor said many news organizations are ill-equipped to do that.

“For the most part, they don’t have very many people in audience and analytics who are skilled and knowledgeable enough about those questions and then have the time and the resources to actually delve into them and understand them,” Doctor said. “… If they understood them, then the question would be: What do you do with that data? You can do two things. You can partner with the right kinds of local … news websites. Or you can build your own products. But because of resource depletion, very few companies have the resources to do either – partner or build.”

About the author

Mark Jacob


A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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