Think papers’ websites are gaining? Think again.

Think papers’ websites are gaining? Think again.
In fact, major metros' online readership has seen little to no gains

April 7, 2016
By the editors of Media Life

This article is part of a Media Life series “Reinventing the American Newspaper.” Click here to read other stories in the series.

For a long time, people assumed the web was the future of newspapers.

They figured readers would transition to papers’ websites when they began abandoning their print editions. They thought audiences for papers’ digital side would soar.

But just as newspaper advertisers don’t appear to be replacing their print ads with digital ones, print newspaper readers aren’t transitioning to newspapers’ websites in this digital age.

A new research paper finds that over the past eight years the websites of 51 major metropolitan newspapers have not on average seen appreciable readership gains, even as print readership falls.

The average reach of a newspaper website within the paper’s market has gone from 9.8 percent in 2007 to 10 percent in 2015. So in your typical top-50 market, the leading daily’s online audience would average just 10 percent of the market’s readership.

At the same time, print readership has fallen from 42.4 percent in 2007 to 28.5 percent in 2015

That’s a steep decline for sure, but it shows just how much larger print readership is versus online.

“It’s totally unsurprising that print readership has been shrinking, but it is extremely surprising that in-market online readership hasn’t been growing,” says Hsiang Iris Chyi, Ph.D., an associate professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. She wrote the paper with Ori Tenenboim, a doctoral student at UT.

You would expect websites to be drawing a bigger readership now than they were nearly a decade ago, before mobile devices were ubiquitous and when papers’ editorial efforts were still focused on print.

But perhaps even more disheartening for newspaper publishers is the finding that more than half  of newspaper websites actually saw declines from 2011 to 2015.

The research also found some other surprising results.

“Even among the youngest age groups, print reach is much higher than online reach,” Chyi says.

Indeed, among those ages 18-24, the youngest group of Millennials, print readership is more than double online, at 19.9 percent versus 7.8 percent. Every age group has a higher print than online readership.

Chyi says the research means newspapers may need to revisit their digital strategies.

“[The results] suggest the need to rethink mainstream assumptions about the future of newspapers,” she says.


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