The phenomenon is widespread. A 2010 Pew analysis of Nielsen media statistics depicts depressingly low levels of usage, even at outstanding national sites. “The average visitor spends only 3 minutes, 4 seconds per session on the typical news sites,” the study says. “No one keeps visitors very long.” And at top-trafficked news sites, ranging from Yahoo News to The Washington Post to Fox News, most people visit just a few times per month. Compare that to the media of past decades. A 2005 study showed that about half of U.S. newspaper readers spent more than thirty minutes reading their daily paper. And most of the less-devoted readers spent at least fifteen minutes with the paper.

There are many reasons for the problems news sites have in getting reader attention, also known as engagement. Consumers today have many digital options available. The experience of getting news on a computer or mobile device, thus far, is fundamentally different from the experience in TV or print; most users tend to flit from site to site, rarely alighting for more than a brief spell.

But there’s another way to look at these numbers, one that is more complex—and, in some ways, more encouraging—for the journalism business.

One person studying this issue closely is Matt Shanahan, an analyst who is relatively new to the media world. Shanahan is, by training, an electrical engineer, and he spent much of his career consulting for big businesses in the fields of aerospace and finance. In 2008, he joined a Seattle-area firm called Scout Analytics; the company was looking to serve industries that were failing to realize their potential in the digital world. “The e-commerce market was noisy and crowded,” he says. “Media and information, however, were mature industries facing severe revenue issues.”

Scout figured it could find new clients among media companies that were trying to learn more about the real nature of their digital audiences. The company signed up about seventy news and information sites—some geared to consumers, but more of them in the business-to-business category—and started looking at the activity of users. They were able to track consumers’ paths through sites and to figure out how often they visited and what they did on each visit. Shanahan was soon struck by an anomaly of the online news industry: the yawning maw that separates the size of audiences from the level of engagement those readers and viewers demonstrate.

Shanahan points to a website for a 90,000-circulation newspaper that serves a medium-sized city on the East Coast. (The name of the company is confidential because it’s a client.) This site gets around 450,000 unique visitors a month.

But those visitors differ widely, and Shanahan separates them into four types: The most loyal are the “fans,” who visit at least twice a week. Then there are the “regulars,” good for one or two visits a week. Sliding down the loyalty scale are “occasionals,” who stop by two or three times a month; and finally, the “fly-bys,” who come just once a month.

The most loyal visitors are a very small part of the overall audience: Fans make up just about 4 percent of the total number of visitors, and regulars 3 percent. Occasionals account for 17 percent and fly-bys for more than 75 percent of the total. In other words, more than three-fourths of the people who visit this news site do so just once a month.

Then Shanahan went deeper, to see how the different kinds of users behaved on the site. He knew the most loyal fans would generate more page views than the fly-bys, since fans visit the site more often. But the disparities in usage were far greater than one might expect.

Fans, despite their small numbers, were responsible for more than 55 percent of the site’s traffic. Fly-bys—those people most likely to come from a search engine or a blog—clicked on barely three pages a month. Overall, each fan generated about fifty times more traffic per person than a fly-by.

“When people talk about the size of an audience, that’s a sham,” Shanahan says. In his view, stated numbers don’t reflect how differently the varieties of users act in the way they navigate a site. Publishers mistakenly focus on “page views rather than length of time,” he writes on his blog, Digital Equilibrium. Referring to ad “impressions,” which are views (not clicks) of ads, Shanahan adds, “Using today’s standard, there is no difference between impressions that last one second, ten seconds, or two minutes.”

Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave, and Lucas Graves are the co-authors of "The Story so Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism." Grueskin is dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Seave is a principal of Quantum Media, a NYC-based consulting firm. Graves is a PhD candidate in communications at Columbia University. For further biographical details, click here.