In the future, online news will make us all feel fine …

The Newspaper Association of America is crowing of late over the growth of audiences at online news websites.

Newspaper companies drove record traffic to their websites in the first quarter of 2010, attracting an unprecedented 74.4 million unique visitors per month on average – more than one-third (37 percent) of all Internet users. This new record follows the strong audience newspapers delivered in last year’s fourth quarter, with newspaper websites drawing an average of 72 million unique visitors per month during that period. [emphasis added]

Editor & Publisher points out that these numbers demonstrate continued online growth carried over from the fourth quarter of 2009. The first quarter numbers apparently show visitors showing up and staying on site a while, averaging 44 pages per person during a visit of just more than a half hour.

The NAA is happily tossing confetti and joyfully dropping balloons over this booming Internet traffic. The business model of the future is nigh! Should anyone else celebrate?

Not me. And not anyone who pays close attention to layoffs in the newspaper industry, the content of online sites, the apparent increasing numbers of under 35 visitors, and the increasingly false logic of arguing newspapers are the most trusted information sources.

Beginning in June 2009, Nielsen, which did this study for NAA, cranked up a new method. Buried at the end of the NAA press release is this:

Nielsen has made several enhancements to the NetView service, including an increased sample size of more than 230,000 panelists, more granular reporting and improved accuracy and representativeness. … As a result of this change, comparisons with prior year reports are not statistically valid.

Nine months of data under this new method “with greater depth and granularity” do not necessarily represent a compelling trend. But, sure, let’s assume it does.

So what?

At the moment, these 74.4 million unique visitors are dining for free off online news site menus. What will happen to these visitors when the budding trend of pay walls spreads through the NAA’s membership of nearly 2,000 newspapers and their multiplatform businesses in the U.S. and Canada?

The news industry still has yet to contend forthrightly with its biggest error committed a decade ago: Give the news away for free to draw traffic to these new sites. Now it has the large online audience it sought, but it has enculturated that immense following with the news-is-free expectation.

Will that audience flee when the NAA’s members whisper anxiously, “Pay me. Please? Pretty please?”

The NAA, which paid for the study, is not an organization regarded as fully desirous of supporting the best possible journalism at its member newspapers. Browse its website: not much on fostering journalism as a public service, but plenty for the business and management folks in newspaper companies — market, advertising and circulation research. This is not a criticism. Serving the business side of newspaper management is the function of the NAA. Other organizations serve the journalism aspect of newspaper companies.

But …

The NAA may be giddy over the growth of Internet readership — but that proferred product is declining in quality because the newspaper companies NAA represents have cut the resources (journalists!) necessary to consistently produce a quality product. And the product’s being given away for free?

Newspaper companies weren’t losing money five years ago as much as the margin of profit had declined. To bolster that margin, they shed costs. The wave of layoffs and buyouts reached 31,000 in 2008 and 2009 with 1,800 so far this year. Hence the decline in routine quality and breadth of stories.

That’s not a sound business plan by any measure.

That growth in unique visitors mirrors a finding from Britain. One study shows that “average consumption has risen to 72 minutes a day, compared with 60 minutes in 2006—an increase driven almost entirely by people under the age of 35.” [emphasis added] But … only one in seven would pay for news. And this is the generation NAA members expect to gladly accept a pay wall?

The NAA continues to try to persuade audiences that newspapers are a good deal for information. In a February release, the NAA said a comScore study found “local newspaper Web sites ranked first among all sources for trustworthiness, credibility and being the most informative place to find local content of all types – including news, information, entertainment, sports and classified advertising.”

That “trustworthiness'” research does not examine the quality of the information.

A new readership, a younger readership, is, perhaps, emerging at the same time information quality — particularly that of journalism — is declining.

This new age demographic may be attaching itself to an increasingly inferior product and believing that the product is “trustworthy.” Add in the current cost of the product — free — and the critical thinking skills of a new generation of “multimedia platform” information consumers become suspect.

That future is nigh may consist of an audience (born and bred on free stuff ) sufficiently sated by entertainment news and programming online — as long as it remains free. That may be enough for newspaper companies — deliver content that’s cheaply produced to an audience that doesn’t give a damn about costly but boring government coverage. Yup, the news companies may make that work profitably. Yup, the news biz can make that inexpensive, Lohanesque content trustworthy. Yup, the newspaper corporations, already deeply in bed with advertisers, can certainly make the ads around leaked nude photos appear trustworthy.

Everybody’s happy now, right?

You did see the movie Idiocracy, didn’t you?

3 replies »

  1. So many comments, so little time. Let’s see.

    1: I don’t know, free seems like about the right price for the reportage I’m seeing these days.

    2: What was it REM said? “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine”?

    3: Okay, more seriously, you have the dynamics pegged. And try as hard as I can, I see no solution. The American system is rigged in favor of a definition of information that leans heavily away from “knowledge.” This is part of the larger soup, with politics and education and religion and consumerism, that has finally come to a good, roiling boil.

    I know I’ve always been cynical, so feel free to explain to me why there’s still hope. Until that happens, though, it seems like the game is over and civilization lost.

  2. The NAA, which paid for the study, is not an organization regarded as fully desirous of supporting the best possible journalism at its member newspapers.

    This is worthy of Jeeves himself.