When last we checked on the Newspaper Association of America's webstats (and other data) back in April, the monthly website usage information that the nation's daily newspaper organization was publishing came from Nielsen Online, and it wasn't all that pretty.
The NAA tried to put the best spin on the data, but as we pointed out at the time, time spent at newspaper sites was in the doldrums and getting gradually worse, with three of the seven shortest attention spans measured by Nielsen occuring in the first quarter of 2010: 34:10 minutes in January, 31:39 minutes in February, and 32:21 minutes in March. For context, consider that at the time, also according to Nielsen, the average Facebook user was spending nearly seven hours on the social networking site.
It looks like NAA was not happy with those first quarter web stats. It published April data from Nielsen but offered no further updates for four months. At that point, I inquired whether NAA had decided to stop publishing the data, and was informed by Jeff Sigmund, Director of Communications, that "a new methodology" was in the works.
The new methodology turns out be be Comscore. Last Thursday, NAA posted Comscore data for September, and simultaneously wiped all the old Nielsen data off its site. The reason for the switch is clear: Comscore's results are more favorable to newspapers than Nielsen's in several categories, as trumpeted in an NAA press release.
As part of the switch, Comscore provides NAA with data specific demographic slices, something it didn't get from Nielsen. For example, it reports: "More than 55 percent of adults in the 25-to-34-year-old demographic visited a newspaper website in September. During that same time period, 52 percent of this age group visited Yahoo! News Network, 22 percent visited CNN and 24 percent visited MSNBC." We'd love to drill a little deeper there, but that particular comparison seems to suggest that with no real statistical difference between Yahoo!News and the entire newspaper business in reach among 25-to-34-year-olds, Yahoo! offers a vastly more efficient one-stop ad buy than newspapers do.
Similarly, NAA says Comscore found that "one-in-four (25 percent) of adult newspaper website visitors come from households earning at least $100,000 a year, compared to 21 percent of all adult Internet users." News consumption and newspaper readership have always skewed a bit toward higher income strata, so that's not surprising — in fact, that four percent advantage is not particularly impressive, and here again, advertisers can easily find sites that are far more efficient in reaching high-income consumers.
When compared with the old Nielsen data, the benefits of the vendor switch are obvious. In March, Nielsen found 72.1 million unique visitors, which was about equal to the average for the previous 9 months. But in September, Comscore identified 102.8 million UVs, "almost two-thirds (61 percent) of all adult Internet users" according to the NAA release. (The release explains that Comscore is now NAA's preferred methodology because "it more accurately reflects the true size of the newspaper Web home and at-work online audience," but it offers no explanation of the major discrepancies between the old and new systems. "More accurately" seems to mean "they found more of them.")
Time spent, or engagement, is the metric that matters most to advertisers these days. Unique visitors, no matter how impressive a slice of the total web audience they represent, don't deliver customers to advertisers. They key is whether site visitors are engaging — interacting — with the content and the advertising on the site, and that kind of engagement still eludes most online newspapers.
The NAA release says "the findings point to engagement," without putting that engagement in context or mentioning the specific per user, per visit "time spent" portion of Comscore's findings, which are posted in the "Trends and Numbers" section of NAA's site. There, Comscore reports 3.8 minutes per September visit, and 8.5 visits per visitor, for the month. That's 32.3 minutes per visit, total, for the month of September — a result slightly below the first-quarter average of 32 minutes, 43 seconds found by Nielsen. So in the engagement metric, "more accurate" means "almost exactly the same."
So, while it's no doubt statistically invalid to directly compare the Nielsen and Comscore findings, what NAA seems to have bought by switching is a larger audience spending about the same amount of time per visitor. And that "time spent" by either method boils down to an average of about a minute per user per day — still only about one half of one percent of all time spent online.
Comscore measured a total of 3.3 billion minutes spent at (U.S.) newspaper websites (compared to an average of 2.3 billion in the first quarter — the increase being due to the improved UV count) which sounds like a lot until you consider that (in August, and globally) we collectively spent 41.1 billion minutes at Facebook. Those figures should not be directly compared, but it's clear that newspapers, collectively, enjoy just a fraction of the attention the top social network commands.
Perhaps more important than all of this statistical nitpicking, though, is the fact that while the NAA fiddles with methodology and stat sourcing, the audience, is in the middle of another major shift in its digital news consumption from web browsers to mobile platforms — smartphones, e-readers and tablets. By sometime in 2012, cumulative sales of iPads, alone, will exceed the number of home-delivered newspaper subscriptions. The majority of mobile content consumption is likely to fall on the leisure side of the consumer's online time — enabling deeper, longer engagement than the fleeting workday news consumption being measured by Nielsen and Comscore. Many newspapers are in fact working to follow their audience in this shift (though few are leading them there), but NAA is still stuck in an earlier mode of touting questionable browser traffic stats.
NAA's vendor switch for the sake of a somewhat more impressive monthly press release misses the mark of what it should really be doing to help its members find a digital audience. It's time for NAA to dig much more deeply and broadly into this shifting landscape — to begin measuring and comparing news consumption in print, in broadcast, on computers and on mobile devices. So far, few news media have found ways to make their digital versions profitable, let alone self-sustaining in the absence of their legacy print versions. Will they ever get there, when their national trade organization is still refining "methodology" for counting its web browser audience, while that very audience is rapidly shifting its consumption to a whole new generation of digital devices in which usage of apps, rather than websites, is what counts?
Photo by Paul Mayne, used under Creative Commons license.