Contra Yglesias, newspapers have lost readers to the Web

Junk traffic and loyal readers, yet again

Writing about newspapers and the Internet, Matthew Yglesias manages to be both crushingly obvious and wrong at the same time. Quite a feat.

Here’s his headline:

Online News Hasn’t Killed Newspapers—It’s the Death of Advertising

And lede:

Hearing some coverage of the Washington Post’s sale on radio and television over the past couple of days, I heard a lot of clich├ęs about newspaper struggling to adapt as readers moved online or newspapers losing audience to the Web. Obviously there is some of this going on. But it’s pretty badly overstated. The really good American newspapers tend to have more readers than ever before, because the Internet turns out to be a really great way to distribute newspaper articles globally at low cost.

The problem isn’t that the Web has disrupted the news business, it’s that it’s disrupted the advertising business.

Craigslist has been bad for newspapers? Do tell!

But it’s just not true that newspapers haven’t “struggled to adapt as readers moved online” or that they haven’t lost audience.

(And advertising has not died. Total ad spending was $140 billion last year in the US. It was $121 billion in 2002. Adjusted for inflation, ads are down 9 percent in a decade, hardly a “death.” In the meantime exponentially more businesses sell advertising, and that has driven down prices.)

What Yglesias misses with newspapers and online ads is the junk-traffic problem: Yes, papers reach more people online, but the vast majority of those unique visitors are essentially worthless. Some 86 percent of newspaper pageviews online come from the top 25 percent of their readers.

The New York Times, say, reaches far more readers than ever online. But of its 17 million unique visitors a month (in the US, where it’s far easier and more lucrative for the paper to sell ads), a sizable chunk click one story via Twitter or HuffPo or some such site and don’t return.

The truly valuable digital readers are a core of about 5 to 10 percent who are heavy users of or its apps. Those readers spend many hours a month reading the NYT online. The 700,000 who pay an average $202 a year to do so are what you might call the super-valuable online readers.

The average NYT reader online, though, is worth almost nothing (I wrote about this four years ago, but let’s update the math, and please note that these are very rough estimates). He spends half an hour a month—one minute a day—on the paper’s website for a total of 17 million minutes a day in the US.

A print reader by contrast, spends half an hour with the paper every day on average. There are very roughly 1.7 million print NYT readers (each paper is read by an average of more than two people and almost all of them are in the US). That’s 51 million minutes a day.

So by my back-of-the-envelope math, about 75 percent of attention to the Times comes from print readers, while 76 percent of the Times’s ad revenue comes from print.

That makes sense: While there are many fewer of them, the average print reader spends roughly 30 times as much time with the Times (how many times can I use the word “time” in this sentence?) as the average online reader does.

Where have those newspaper readers gone? To Yelp, Facebook,Yahoo, Huffington Post, Google, Twitter, Craigslist, et al. The unbundling of newspapers’ advertising has gone hand in hand with the unbundling of their content.

Further reading:

Loyal Readers and Junk Traffic.

Print Newspapers Still Dominate Readers’ Attention

The Chasm Between the Value of Print and Web Readers.

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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 Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,