Web audience could offset print decline

For anyone who has been paying close attention to the ever-changing media landscape, these findings may not exactly qualify as a news flash: A report released last week from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), culled from Nielsen Net Ratings information, shows the online audience for newspapers is growing.

For anyone who has been paying close attention to the ever-changing media landscape, these findings may not exactly qualify as a news flash: A report released last week from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), culled from Nielsen Net Ratings information, shows the online audience for newspapers is growing.

According to the study, one in three Internet users, or 55 million people, visit a newspaper Web site every month.

In addition, from January to December 2005, unique visitors to newspaper Web sites jumped 21%, and page views increased 43%. Not surprisingly, the study shows that newspaper Web sites have increased their audience among younger readers, attracting 14% more 25- to 34-year-olds and 9% more 18- to 24-year-olds.

Yet in a time where more and more people get their news from blog postings, news aggregators, or summary sites, the fact that so many online visitors are turning to newspapers for information is reassuring for an industry that has seen so much upheaval of late.

"I think part of the reason that we're doing the report is to continue to build awareness for the fact that newspaper audiences are actually growing, despite media reports that we're a declining industry because there's been so much focus on circulation numbers," says Randy Bennett, VP of audience and new-business development for the NAA.

Certainly, the big players in the newspaper game have gotten the message. Once the ugly stepchild of their print counterparts, most major newspaper Web sites are now arguably the more sophisticated operation. Just last week, The New York Times unveiled a new Web site complete with more multimedia functionality, meta- tagging of topics, and a "My Times" feature that allows users to organize how they receive news from the Times and other sources.

But Colby Atwood, VP for media research firm Borrell Associates, believes that local newspapers stand to benefit the most from the uptick in visits to newspaper Web sites.

"The fact that they're paying more attention to newspaper Web sites is indicative of their desire for locally relevant information," he says, adding that local newspaper sites are the perfect platform for the user-generated content that has become increasingly popular over the past year.

"Newspapers are not in a position to field enough reporters to get all the information that people are interested in," he adds. "I hope that newspapers will enable interested local people to generate content that appears on the newspaper's Web site to try to further the interest that people have in local news."

Just as local newspaper Web sites provide an untapped opportunity for smaller advertisers who otherwise could not afford to be featured in print, including smaller, more locally relevant stories online could also help smaller companies.

"[A Web site] plays to the strength of newspapers, which is their connection to their local community," Atwood says. "It's the thing that distinguished local newspapers from their national competitors. As newspapers learn how to do this, you're going to continue to see this growth in their traffic."

And while PR professionals are undoubtedly already well versed in pitching online journalists, the increasing popularity of newspaper Web sites could require a bit of tweaking to existing strategies. For those smaller clients who may not be able to break into a print edition, a story on a newspaper's Web site, perhaps by utilizing user-generated media, could be an increasingly important and strategic placement.

In the long run, an increase in Web readership for newspapers should compensate for the continued decline in print circulation. And better yet, it helps re- store the idea of the newspaper - no matter what the form - as a viable outlet for news.

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