Papers get creative to draw Web traffic

In December 2007, The Wall Street Journal fell from fourth place to fifth place in Nielsen Online's figures for newspaper Web site traffic. The replacement was an unlikely foe: Newsday.com, which has recently become a fixture at the top of the list.

In December 2007, The Wall Street Journal fell from fourth place to fifth place in Nielsen Online's figures for newspaper Web site traffic. The replacement was an unlikely foe: Newsday.com, which has recently become a fixture at the top of the list.

Newsday now attracts 6.45 million unique readers, a staggering 182.8% increase from December 2006. Unsurprisingly, many major metro dailies on the list have experienced increases in unique users, as more people seek Web news, but none have shot up as quickly and dramatically as Newsday.

It might not have the national footprint of The New York Times or New York Post, but Newsday is a well-read paper in the Big Apple, with the Sunday circulation at 450,000, says Jennifer Saba, associated editor at Editor & Publisher.

"Newsday [has] a pretty big circulation... [but] I'm really surprised [it] rocketed up so quickly," she notes, adding that Newsday.com was in 13th place in October and 5th in November.

Newsday.com was unable to grant an interview for this piece, but released the following statement, attributed to Deidra Parrish Williams, spokesperson and director of community affairs and media relations:

"We are very pleased with our online audience growth. It's due to a variety of strategic initiatives including Walt Handelsman's animated cartoons, our increasingly popular high school sports packages, robust video packages and topical features on events like the Giants' run to the Super Bowl, search engine optimization [SEO], and increased volume of online news items."

Williams' statement points to a number of initiatives undertaken by other papers, including enhanced SEO and increasing online video and news items, so the most likely culprit for a large share of the bump is the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Handelsman. Geographical rival The New York Times published an article related to the surge, titled "Web Cartoon Bolsters Visits to Newsday."

"Showing his cartoons on the blog makes it a lot easier for users to share or send [them] around," Debby Krenek, managing editor at Newsday who oversees interactive efforts, told The Times.

With newspaper circulation flagging and online ad expenditures rising, traditional media companies have looked to bolster their online coverage in order to raise revenues or staunch losses. While many papers have added blogs, dedicated more online resources, and tried to improve the design of the homepage, Newsday.com's success shows that increased page views can be found through less obvious means, such as an interactive cartoon that strikes a chord with new readers.

What is interesting about Handelsman's work is that it appears to appeal to baby boomers, a group that is spending more time online, just like every other demographic.

If Newsday.com's success serves as any sort of clue to the newspaper industry, it is that one hire with appeal - in this case, Handelsman, who joined the paper in 2001 - can go far, especially when budgetary restrictions are forcing editors to winnow resources.

That a cartoon provides a significant boost is not something that old guard editors of newspapers will want to hear. But traditional publications are - through their own, individual efforts - seeking their own Handelsman.

For instance, The Times recently hired Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol to helm a column. It also absorbed the blog of Freakonomics editors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. Time hired popular author and blogger Andrew Sullivan, so that Time.com could host his blog. Sullivan left, and now has the same deal with Atlantic Monthly's Web site, TheAtlantic.com. As individuals strike out to create their own places on the Web, newspapers will likely continue to try to lure them to pursue their blogs and cartoons under a specific publication's banner.

The stakes are high, especially for newspaper publishers. Advertising on newspaper Web sites has grown at a double-digit clip for 14 consecutive quarters, up to $771 million dollars in Q3 2007.

"The goal will be to go full force on the Web," Saba says. "That's where the revenue opportunity lies now."

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