According to a presentation by Belden Interactive and ITZ Publishing at the American Press Institute, posted by Nieman Journalism Lab’s excellent reporter Zachary M. Seward a few weeks back, the top 25 percent of newspaper Web visitors account for 86 percent of its page views. Fifty-four percent of unique visitors are “fly-by” traffic with one visit in a given month. Chew on that for a minute. If you’re a newspaper and you’re focusing on unique visitors, you’re focusing on the wrong thing.

But also, if you’re a newspaper and you’re worried that charging for your news is going to kill your traffic, you ought to think about who’s going to be subscribing to your paper online. They’re your most loyal readers, the ones who visit most every day and read multiple stories when they do. They’re the top slice that futilely tries to pull up those average time-spent numbers dragged down by drive-by traffic that comes on the site for ten seconds and then bolts.

Maybe 3 percent or 5 percent—if you’re good—of your current unique visitors end up subscribing. The calculation to be made is how much of your page views and attention share those visitors account for. If the top 25 percent of visitors account for 86 percent of page views, as ITZ Belden says, that changes the picture, no? What about the top 3 percent or top 5 percent of visitors? If the top 1 percent of loyal visitors account for 17 percent of page views, as they do at MinnPost, here’s guessing the top five percent make up some half of page views.

If you’re able to charge three percent or even five percent of your visitors, you bring in that revenue, plus you keep all of those loyal readers’ ad revenue, which again is disproportionately high. You can have your cake and eat a decent portion of it, too. And if you’re The Dallas Morning News, your Texas advertisers won’t be paying nearly as much to serve ads to folks in, say, Dallas, North Carolina.

Still, as the Journal has shown, you might be able to charge a loyal minority, while keeping your site open to less-loyal visitors, as well as the transient Google and Digg traffic so you (metro papers) can serve them those awesome fifty-cent-CPM network ads.

Oh yeah, and you slow the rate of decline of your cash-cow print edition.

I don’t know if many or most metro papers are too far gone to make such a strategy work. I do know that if they continue on their current paths they’re for all intents and purposes journalistically doomed. But for a paper like The New York Times that has preserved its newsroom, and already gets about a million people to pay it an average $600 or so a year, this ought to be much less of a dilemma.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.