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June 15 2011

16:00

Does a new report mean doom and gloom for local online news? Maybe, but here are a few balancing factors

Matthew Hindman’s new paper showing miserably low levels of local online news consumption is a terrific addition to research on how journalism gets produced and consumed online. He found, using panel data from comScore, that local news sites received, on average, only about three pageviews per person per week in their local markets.

And that’s in total, adding up all local news sites — individual sites fared even worse. The largest local news site in a typical market reached only about 17.8 percent of local web users in a given month, and it drew only about five minutes of the typical web user’s attention during that month.

Nikki Usher summarized the report’s findings for us in a separate post. But while Hindman’s research is a welcome reminder of local online news’ limitations and failings, I think there are a number of factors that complicate his findings a bit. Here are four reasons why I think the doom and gloom that I expect to circle around this report might not be spot on.

comScore’s dataset isn’t perfect

Among the various traffic-measurement firms, comScore has a very solid reputation. But it is also subject to some of the criticisms that have historically faced Nielsen’s TV ratings, most notably that their sample may not be a representative one. For example, comScore panel data doesn’t measure mobile traffic. And it likely undercounts web traffic from people at work, which Pablo Boczkowski and others have shown to be where a disproportionate amount of online news consumption occurs. (Hindman, to his credit, highlights these problems with comScore’s dataset.)

And, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the kind of person willing to install comScore’s traffic-recording tool on their computers isn’t perfectly representative of the web-using public. The biggest news nerds might be underrepresented.

But the reality is these are quibbles, and Hindman’s larger point remains. Even if comScore is undercounting by a factor of three or four, we’re still talking about a small-numbers showing for local online media.

Reach does not mean impact

If raw readership totals equaled impact — on political discussion, on democracy, on the culture — then USA Today would be more important than The New York Times and Reader’s Digest would be more important than The New Yorker. Reaching the “right” people — and by that I mean the people who have disproportionate influence in political discussion, democracy, or culture — can make an outlet’s reach more potent than traffic numbers would suggest.

So for sites like MinnPost or Voice of San Diego, which write extensively about politics and local government, it’s possible to be both a must-read in the corridors of City Hall or the statehouse and still reach an audience that’s disproportionately influential.

Take MinnPost, for instance. According to Hindman’s analysis, 0.61 percent of all pageviews in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area went to local news sites. And only about 0.001 percent of total pageviews went to MinnPost (varying slightly by month).

But MinnPost’s Joel Kramer told us in March that, in January and February, MinnPost.com had received 921,000 visits. Each of those generated at least one pageview. The site has 5,700 daily email newsletter subscribers, 2,500 weekly email subscribers, and over 10,000 followers on Twitter.

In other words, while MinnPost may look like a rounding error in the overall scheme of Twin Cities web traffic, it is reaching many thousands of people. And even if those people are a small subset of the area population, a site like MinnPost can still have a significant positive impact on public affairs.

In Hindman’s previous book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, he advanced a largely similar argument based around political blogs. Here’s the book’s promo copy from its publisher:

Matthew Hindman argues that, though hundreds of thousands of Americans blog about politics, blogs receive only a miniscule portion of Web traffic, and most blog readership goes to a handful of mainstream, highly educated professionals. He shows how, despite the wealth of independent Web sites, online news audiences are concentrated on the top twenty outlets, and online organizing and fund-raising are dominated by a few powerful interest groups. Hindman tracks nearly three million Web pages, analyzing how their links are structured, how citizens search for political content, and how leading search engines like Google and Yahoo! funnel traffic to popular outlets. He finds that while the Internet has increased some forms of political participation and transformed the way interest groups and candidates organize, mobilize, and raise funds, elites still strongly shape how political material on the Web is presented and accessed.

You can see the DNA of that argument in the current paper. And I think Hindman’s right: If your goal for online media is to create a digital version of the New England town hall, then yes, you’re going to be disappointed that online media creates its own new class of media elites. But I’d argue that, if we’re judging online media’s value or worthiness to democracy, it’s important to do so through a lens that isn’t merely transposed from the days of big broadcast towers and giant metro newspapers.

I think, even taking Hindman’s facts on political blogs, that it’s impossible to argue that they haven’t had a significant impact on political discussion in America — despite their comparatively small readership and their power-law popularity structure. So I’d caution against anyone drawing similar conclusions based on this new paper about online media more broadly.

Local news does not equal “news”

It’s worth noting that, while the comScore data found little interest in local news, it did find substantially more interest in national and global outlets. Hindman’s analysis found that local news made up only about 19 percent of all pageviews to news sites measured. (The remainder is only defined as “nonlocal news sources,” but we can presume that a healthy chunk of that is made up of the big national news brands: CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, etc.)

The numbers were even more lopsided when you look at minutes spent rather than pageviews. Only about 15 percent of all time spent consuming online news was spent on local news sites.

While that’s not great news for local sites, it does indicate that people’s interest in online news more broadly isn’t in the same state of disrepair as their interest in local news. And it perhaps speaks to the wisdom of strategies that try to inject local news into national news brands — for instance, what MSNBC.com is doing with EveryBlock, or what AOL is trying to do in marrying HuffPo to Patch and Outside.in.

Watch your comparison sphere

One final note: Be cautious about reading too much into any statistics that look at online news as a fraction of total time spent online. That’s putting online news in competition not just with other traditional content sources, but with Gmail, and Facebook, and shopping on Amazon, and all the other bazillion things we do all day on the Internet. In other words, as more and more activities that traditionally took place outside the browser move inside it, it only makes sense that online news’ share might not keep up — even if online news consumption were held constant. (For example, if online news reading went up 10 percent, but total online usage went up 100 percent, online news as a share of online activity would drop — even though people were consuming more online news. Time spent shopping for shoes at Zappos shouldn’t count against time spent reading local headlines.

Again, that’s not to invalidate (or even to argue against) Hindman’s findings; his raw numbers of minutes spent are plenty low enough on their own, even without any comparison to the rest of the web. But if we are going to judge online news consumption, let’s use the numbers that make the most sense.

Separately, because the FCC-funded research process is pleasantly open, you can read Hindman’s initial draft of his paper, a peer review of it by Iris Chyi at the University of Texas, Hindman’s response to Chyi’s remarks, and the final version. Probably only of interest to the nerdiest of news nerds, but Chyi raises some good points.

October 13 2010

14:00

Does investing in print help the bottom line? Discouraging evidence from the San Francisco Chronicle

The Globe and Mail is the latest newspaper to double down on print — investing big money in a new, glossy, full-color format aimed at making the value of news-on-paper more clear. As Canadians kvell over the print redesign and read the national daily without the inky stain of newsprint on their fingers, it’s worth remembering that the San Francisco Chronicle made a similar move almost a year ago.

Last November, the Chronicle began printing its weekday front page, section fronts and select inside pages on high-gloss paper as a way to lure advertisers and strive for “magazine-quality production,” publisher Frank Vega and editor Ward Bushee said at the time. (The paper revamped its layout in February 2009.) It was an interesting move, considering that less than eight months earlier the paper, facing the threat of closure by its parent company Hearst, was shedding nearly $1 million a week. The switch was a result of a 15-year, $1 billion deal between Hearst and Canadian printing giant Transcontinental, which opened a $200 million plant near San Jose.

Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to see any improvement from the move. Circulation numbers are still in decline, and the Chronicle has scaled back glossy printing to its Sunday paper only. Which raises the questions: Is glossy paper worth it, both in terms of circulation and advertising? And if readers enjoy a smoother feel to their paper, does that warrant the extra cost?

“I don’t think so,” Chronicle president Mark Adkins told me. “You would have to be part of a broader strategy that would include more commercial printing and higher consumer pricing. It’s not a good tactical move for other papers.”

Lack of advertiser response

When it switched to glossy, the Chronicle circulated around 251,782 weekday papers, a 26-percent drop from the previous year. By March 2010, weekday circulation was down to 241,330. The economy certainly takes part of the blame, but the marketing power of a classier kind of newsprint doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact. It costs about 30 percent more to print on the new heat-set presses, which are rare (and expensive) in the newspaper industry.

“On the ad side, advertisers have not responded to it at all,” Adkins says, although the Chronicle wouldn’t reveal specific ad revenue numbers. When the Chronicle switched to glossy, it had “no advertisers lined up,” Adkins adds. The move was primarily aimed at consumers, to present a more luxurious product. But to some extent, that’s what the Chronicle expected when it restructured its business model around readership and circulation revenue, rather than advertising, almost two years ago. Even before the arrival of glossy stock, the paper had increased single-copy and subscription prices. Readers have responded favorably to the new paper, Adkins says, but they’re shouldering more of the production cost.

But back when the shift was made, Adkins also emphasized the appeal to advertisers, leading the San Francisco Business Times to write: “Without naming names, Adkins said that some advertisers who are now playing ball with the Chronicle wouldn’t before. They shunned newspaper ads because ‘they don’t deliver the brand image they require,’ he said — an obstacle the Chron’s new paper removes.”

“People are definitely and truly intrigued when they see copies of the Chronicle,” says Chuck Moozakis, editor of the print innovation monthly Newspapers & Technology. “The paper is trying to send a signal that you can have a newspaper that looks like this and not like that. But it’s a challenge now.”

Looking internationally

The Chronicle won’t be phasing out high-gloss paper any time soon — not with that $1 billion Hearst deal — but Adkins isn’t ready to champion glossy as the savior of the print industry. That’s partly because in most cases printing on high-gloss paper requires outsourcing — a costly and alienating move — to independent commercial presses like Transcontinental. Heat-set presses simply aren’t ubiquitous enough in the United States to make higher-grade printing a viable option for most newspapers.

As for Canada’s Globe and Mail, editor John Stackhouse told readers that he wasn’t looking to the American newspaper market for inspiration when it comes to his “Proudly Print” approach: “Rather than study the U.S. market which is fairly depressed in terms of newpaper innovation, we looked to quality papers in southern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia and found a great array of ideas that encouraged us to pursue a bold and confident look as well as a design that would continue to support great, in-depth journalism…One of the principal goals of the redesign is to raise the quality of The Globe at a time when we feel many other media are reducing their quality.”

October 05 2010

14:00

Doubling down on print: Canada’s Globe and Mail unveils a new print edition to complement the web

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most-circulated national daily newspaper, revealed its much-ballyhooed redesign on Friday. The paper is calling it “the most significant redesign” in its 166-year history, and it’s a billion-dollar bet on print at a time when the format’s fortunes would seem to be fading.

The renovations to “Canada’s National Newspaper” are part of what editor-in-chief John Stackhouse boldly calls his “Proudly Print” approach, with print as one component (with online and mobile) of a three-pronged news attack. The redesign tries to make the differences between print and web more clear. Full-color printing and a high-gloss wrap — the first of its kind in North America — aim to help lure advertisers. There’ll be more magazine-like stories, including photo-driven features plastered boldly on the front page. A slightly narrower size means shorter, punchier stories. And that’s not to mention the informational accoutrements, like sidebars and info graphs, and the litany of new inserts and content realignments. The redesign “once again demonstrates our commitment to the newspaper business,” according to publisher and CEO Phillip Crawley.

This is a big-time overhaul for the Globe, and not only because the paper sees it as a reassertion of dominance — i.e., shelling the struggling National Post, its conservative competitor since 1999, in the national newspaper war of attrition — over the Canadian media landscape.

But whenever a redesign happens, criticism follows. The prevailing question in this case is fairly obvious: Why invest in an 18-year, C$1.7-billion printing deal — with the same press as the San Francisco Chronicle — at a time when newsprint seems like yesterday’s medium?

“It’s going to be a millstone around the Globe’s neck,” says Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at GigaOm and former Globe web editor (and Lab contributor). “That’s 10 years you’re going to be paying for something that’s going to restrict the paper’s ability to do things that are focusing on the web. That’s not a thing a newspaper needs at a time like this.”

But the Globe sees its investment as a bet on print having a complementary role to online news going forward. “Our readers are digitally-minded people,” Stackhouse told me on launch day. “We publish a paper for people who are online a lot and still want a printed product at their doorstep every day to make sense of a world that flew by them while there were online.” Stackhouse, who took over as editor-in-chief in spring 2009 after a career as a business reporter, knows what he’s up against, and he’s making an argument about what a 21st-century newspaper needs to look like.

The Globe has always been the highbrow stalwart in Canadian journalism — and judging from its minimalist yet dramatic ad campaign, the paper still sees itself at the head of table. (For more proof, check out this nifty microsite.) Stackhouse uses the term “the daily pause,” when readers feel obligated to close their browsers and read insightful, show-stopping journalism. That’s what newspapers should strive to give their readers, he told me. He says there “needs to be more selection. We need to bring more insight to issues that matter most and focus on issues of consequence and try to have fun with it.”

The Globe, like most other newspapers, realizes there’s still money in print advertising. According to a profile of the Globe in last month’s Toronto Life magazine, the paper’s online component brings in roughly 15 percent of the revenue generated on the print side — not far off the totals for most large American newspapers.

Whether or not Crawley’s doubling-down strategy will work remains to be seen. Eighteen years is a long time. Critics wonder if placing such emphasis on print will limit the Globe’s ability to take the reigns of a slim Canadian online news market. The responses look a lot like this tweet, from Toronto-based technology consultant Rob Hyndman: “The Globe’s changes are about fear of loss, not about moving towards a positive goal.”

The Globe surely sees things differently. Its prime competitors — the National Post, the Toronto Star, and free dailies like Metro and 24 — are all print products. In fact, the paper’s weekday circulation jumped 5 percent last year and its print revenue increased 10 percent, while everyone else took a step backward. In Canada, the world of print is still the gladiator ring. The Canadian online news marketplace is underdeveloped: There’s nothing like Salon or The Daily Beast or The Huffington Post to draw eyeballs away from sites — GlobeandMail.com, CBC.ca, CTV.ca, GlobalTV.com — already affiliated with traditional news organizations. Speaking at the Economic Club of Canada on the eve of the launch, Stackhouse pinpointed four online competitors — The Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, and the BBC — none of which are Canadian. Without a sea of competitors galvanizing innovation and growth in Canadian online news, the Globe seems to think it makes sense to stick to the gravy — a move Ingram thinks is a mistake.

“Now is the time to seize the day, to become a leader,” he says, “because the Globe doesn’t have a huge amount of competition in print or online. It feels like it’s the only game in town — except maybe the CBC — and that lulls the paper into a false sense of security about its future.”

September 14 2010

18:30

“Squeezing humanity through a straw”: The long-term consequences of using metrics in journalism

[Here's C.W. Anderson responding to the same subject Nikki Usher wrote about: the impact of audience data on how news organizations operate. Sort of a debate. —Josh]

One way to think about the growing use of online metrics in newsrooms (a practice that has been going on forever but seems to have finally been noticed of late) is to think about it as part of a general democratization of journalism. And it’s tempting to portray the two sides to the debate as (in this corner!) the young, tech-savvy newsroom manager who is finally listening to the audience, and (in this corner!) the fading fuddy-duddy-cum-elitist more concerned with outdated professional snobbery than with what the audience wants.

Fortunately, actual working journalists rarely truck in such simplistic stereotypes, arguing rightly that there isn’t a binary divide between smart measurement and good journalism. As Washington Post executive producer and head of digital news products Katharine Zaleski told Howard Kurtz:

There’s news we know people should read — because it’s important and originates with our reporting — and that’s our primary function…But we also have to be very aware of what people are searching for out there and want more information on…If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our jobs.

Or as Lab contributor Nikki Usher put it: “[I]f used properly, SEO and audience tracking make newsrooms more accountable to their readers without dictating bad content decisions — and it can help newsrooms focus on reader needs.”

At the level of short-term newsroom practices, I agree with Usher, Zaleski, and every other journalist and pundit who takes a nuanced view of the role played by newsroom metrics. So if you’re worried about whether audience tracking is going to eliminate quality journalism, the quick answer is no.

My own concerns with the increased organizational reliance on metrics are more long-term and abstract. They have as much to do with society than with journalism per se. They center around:

— the manner in which metrics can serve as a form of newsroom discipline;
— the squishiness of algorithmically-afforded audience understanding;
— the often-oversimpistic ways we talk about the audience (under the assumption that we’re all talking about the same thing); and, finally
— the way that online quantification simplifies our understanding of what it means to “want” information.

Big topics, I admit. Each of these points could be the subject of its own blog post, so for the sake of space, I want to frame what I’m talking about by dissecting this seemingly innocuous phrase:

“We know what the audience wants.”

Let’s look at the words in this sentence, one at a time. Each of them bundles in a lot of assumptions, which, when examined together, might shed light on the uses and the potential long-term pitfalls of newsroom quantification.

“We”: Who is the “we” that knows what kind of journalism the audience wants? Often, I’d argue, it’s executives in our increasingly digitized newsrooms that now have a powerful tool through which to manage and discipline their employees. In my own research, I’ve discovered that the biggest factor in determining the relationship between metrics and editorial practices are the ways that these metrics are utilized by management, rather the presence or absence of a particular technology. Philosopher Michel Foucault called these types of practices disciplinary practices, and argued that they involved three primary types of control: “hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination.” Perhaps this is fine when we’re trying to salvage a functional news industry out of the wreckage of a failed business model, but we should at least keep these complications in mind — metrics are a newsroom enforcement mechanism.

“Know”: Actually, we don’t know a whole lot about our audiences — but there’s a lot of power in claiming that we know everything. In other words, the more data we have, paradoxically, the less we know, and the more it behooves us to claim exactitude. While smart thinkers have been writing about the problem of poor web metrics for years, a major new report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia has thrown the issue into stark relief. As report researcher (and, full disclosure, friend and colleague) Lucas Graves writes:

The Web has been hailed as the most measurable medium ever, and it lives up to the hype. The mistake was to assume that everyone measuring everything would produce clarity. On the contrary, clear media standards emerge where there’s a shortage of real data about audiences…The only way to imbue an audience number with anything like the authority of the old TV ratings is with a new monopoly — if either Nielsen or comScore folds or, more likely, they merge. That kind of authority won’t mean greater accuracy, just less argument.

There’s a circular relationship here between increased measurement, less meaningful knowledge, and greater institutional power. When we forget this, we can be uncritical about what it is metrics actually allow us to do.

“The Audience”: What’s this thing we insist we know so much about? We call it the audience, but sometimes we slip and call it “the public.” But audiences are not publics, and it’s dangerous to claim that they are. Groups of people connected by the media can be connected in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons, and can be called all sorts of things; they can be citizens united by common purpose, or by public deliberation. They can be activists, united around a shared political goal. They can be a community, or a society. Or they can be called an audience.

I don’t have anything at all against the notion of the audience, per se — but I am concerned that journalists are increasingly equating the measurable audience (a statistical aggregate connected by technology, though consumption) with something bigger and more important. The fact that we know the desires and preferences and this formerly shadowy and hidden group of strangers is seductive, and it’s often wrong.

“Wants”: Finally, what does it mean to want a particular piece of information? As Alexis Madrigal notes in this short but smart post at The Atlantic, informational want is a complicated emotion that runs the risk of being oversimplified by algorithms. Paradoxically, web metrics have become increasingly complex at the same time they’ve posited increasingly simplistic outcomes. They’re complex in terms of their techniques, but simple in terms of what it is we claim they provide us and in the ultimate goal that they serve. Time on site, engagement, pageviews, uniques, eye movement, mouse movement — all of these ultimately boil down to tracking a base-level consumer desire via the click of a mouse or the movement of the eye.

But what do we “want”? We want to love a story, to be angry about it it, to fight with it, to be politically engaged by it, to feel politically apathetic towards it, to let it join us together in a common cause, for it make us laugh, and for it to make us cry. All of these wants are hard to capture quantitatively, and in our rush to capture audience data, we run the risk of oversimplifying the notion of informational desire. We run the risk of squeezing humanity through a digital straw.

So — will an increasing use of online metrics give us bad journalism? No.

Will they play a role in facilitating, over the long term, the emergence of a communicative world that is a little flatter, a little more squeezed, a little more quantitative, more disciplinary, more predictive, and less interesting? They might. But take hope: Such an outcome is likely only if we lose sight of what it is that metrics can do, and what it is about human beings that they leave out.

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