Saturday, August 25, 2007

Talking back to Harvard

It’s hard to overstate how much I think is wrong with the recent Shorenstein Center report “Creative Destruction: An Exploratory Look at News on the Internet.”

McClatchy editors, at least, will be startled to see conclusions like these:

  • “The websites of national “brand name” newspapers are growing, whereas those of many local papers are not.”
  • In contrast [to national brand name papers], the websites of most other newspapers—whether in large, medium-sized, or small cities—have lost audience. Their sites on average have substantially fewer visitors now than a year ago.
  • “The internet is … a larger threat to local news organizations than those that are nationally known. Because the Web reduces the influence of geography on people’s choice of a news source, it inherently favors ‘brand names’ …”

I'm not a scholar and don’t have time to do a detailed analysis and rebuttal of this academic paper, but let me note two reasons to distrust the overbroad conclusions:
  1. The data are wildly at odds with our measurements and experience at more than 30 local newspaper web sites in McClatchy; and,
  2. His notion about the disappearing link between geography and news preference is just plain upside down – at least in the local news business, which is where we operate.
For those of you who read this report or summary and wondered about the apparent reality disconnect, here’s what the world of local online news looks like to those of us living it: traffic is growing robustly, in direct measure to the amount and quality of local news we deliver (and how we deliver it); and among the fastest growing revenue sources are local advertisers who aren't ever going to advertise in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.

Here’s our overview data, from Omniture: at 30 McClatchy sites stretched from Anchorage to Miami, monthly visitor growth gained 20.5% from April 2006 to April 2007 (the period covered in the Shorenstein study). At sites with more than one million monthly uniques, it averaged 20%; at those with fewer than 200,000 monthly it was 16.4%, and at those in-between, obviously, growth rates were somewhat higher.

We also know audience growth at our sites is accelerating; today many of our sites are enjoying growth rates that are far higher than 20%, owing partly to advantages gained in converting former Knight Ridder papers to the same web publishing platform as McClatchy classics, and even more to the fact that we’re learning how to serve and engage audiences better with constant breaking news updates, vigorous video reports, blogs, participative features and other popular local content.

Perhaps the most immediately suspect part of the Harvard report is its dataset: reports from Compete (I know; I never heard of them either). Jeff Jarvis knows more about Compete than I do, and he takes a few whacks at their performance (and the study generally) here. And forgive me if I read too much into this brief note in the Shorestein report about why this particular dataset was selected: “… Compete’s data are available without charge.”

While there are genuine arguments and uncertainties about different web audience measures – hey, it's a relatively new and complex, distributed medium – we have confidence in our Omniture numbers, as do our advertisers. We’re also able to compare them with lots of other measurements since some of the KR papers used Hitbox, and others in the company have had Nielsen/Net Ratings and others. We also calibrate against survey research, our own and Scarborough.

The short version is that, while there’s some uncertainty about measuring audience this new medium, we’re growing robustly at our sites. Our experience just flatly contradicts some of the central foundations of the report, such as “Mid-sized city newspaper sites are not growing,” and “The sites of small-city dailies also are not growing.”

Wrong, Professor. From our vantage point, just plain wrong.

1 comment:

  1. Newspapers - especially midsized dailies - could not be more perfectly positioned to take advantage of these changes. We have the longtime trust of our readers. We have the resources and experience to not only provide our audience with information, but also help sort through the noise.

    Most of our newspapers' Web sites are at least a decade old, so we are well established in this "new" medium. Yes, there are things we need to fix, primarily our classifieds and our search functions, but these just take resources and dedication.

    This is far from being the worst of times for newspapers. In fact, it could be the most exciting time of our industry's history to be a journalist.

    Imagine coming out of college right now with a skillset that combines the traditional (interviewing, reporting, writing) with the new (blogging, video, audio, reporting from anywhere at anytime) with the research resources we have at our fingertips.

    My father and grandfather were newspapermen. The way newspapers worked during their careers (from the '20s through the mid-'90s) changed very little (my father used a PC to write his stories for the final three years). We have the opportunity to reinvent our industry. We're making it up as we go along - and still collecting robust profit margins.

    I have 25 years left in this profession, and I could not be more excited about them.