The Lies Newspapers Tell Themselves About Their Traffic

from the that's-not-going-to-work-too-well... dept

We’ve already discussed how delusional it is to believe that 10 to 15% of online newspaper readers will suddenly convert to paying for online news content, but the numbers may be even worse than that. Jeff Sonderman points us to Alan Mutter discussing a report that suggests newspapers are vastly overcounting their online audiences:

In “nearly every market” included in a study of 118 newspapers of every size in every part of the country, Greg Harmon of Belden Interactive found that publishers on average report the number of unique visitors to their websites is 1.3 times larger than the population of their respective communities — and fully 10 times greater than their print circulation.

Those numbers are not just moderately overstated. “They are magnificently incorrect,” said Harmon

And that’s a massive problem. If they’re already expecting 10 to 15% of that population to pay, and it turns out that the real population is a lot smaller and a smaller percentage signs up to pay, the numbers that those in the industry are throwing around concerning paywalls are going to not just be bad, but they’re going to be downright embarrassing.

On top of this, that same study noted that newspapers don’t seem to realize how little of their actual traffic is from loyal visitors, which tend to only represent about 25% of the actual traffic. And, just because someone’s a loyal visitor, it doesn’t mean they’ll pay. This leaves newspapers in a seriously bad spot when it comes to doing any sort of prediction on how a paywall will work:

  • You don’t really know how many unique visitors you have.
  • You have to guess at the percentage of loyal visitors who will be amenable to paying for content.
  • You have to guess the price loyal visitors might pay.
  • You have to estimate not only how much web traffic you will lose but also how far your ad revenues will tumble in response to the almost certain decline in page views.

It’s like watching a train wreck in motion. I’m hopeful that most newspaper execs actually have some inkling of this — which is why we’ve heard mostly talk, and seen so little action, on paywalls.

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Comments on “The Lies Newspapers Tell Themselves About Their Traffic”

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PaulT (profile) says:

Hmmm… I’m not sure how the figures are necessarily incorrect just because they’re larger than the local communities. I, for one, regularly click on links to newspapers in towns I’ve never heard of when they appear on aggregate sites or blogs I read. A website, by definition, has a reach much wider than the print edition does. That doesn’t mean the unique visitor logs are wrong.

Of course, that doesn’t negate the main point – that such transient visitors are the least likely to pay for the core news content. The papers are certainly screwed if they try to force even a small proportion of visitors to pay for the current content, and even then they’ll probably just cannibalise print subscribers rather than reaching new customers…

Ray Trygstad (profile) says:

Current subscribers and paywalls

I actually still subscribe to the on-paper edition of a “major metropolitan newspaper”. If these folks think I’m going to pay for online access when I’m ALREADY paying once, they’ll find that I will drop my physical subscription like a hot potato–and then not pay a penny to their paywall. On top of that, I’ll still be able to read their online content; I’ll just go through my municipal or university library account, as both of them are ALREADY paying for the “privilege” of access to current and archived articles. Michael is right; these people are deluded, and self-delusion is the hardest kind to break.

Comboman (profile) says:

Overcounting is nothing new

Newspaper intentionally overcount their print circulation numbers so it’s no surprise that they overcount their web hits as well. Newspapers make the majority of their money off advertising. To get the best advertising rates, they need to show good circulation numbers. They do that by offering 1 month free subscriptions to “try out” the paper. They do it by dumping stacks of free newspapers in coffee shops, fast food restaurants, etc.

vastrightwing (profile) says:

Re: Overcounting is nothing new

Right on! LOL, yea, when I read how the NY papers were “delivering” stacks of papers to vacant lots, I thought wow, what a scam! Now they don’t have the overhead of actually delivering and printing. This is great! All they have to do is lie. Maybe they have to create some fake logs on a server, but that’s cheap compared to printing copies no one will ever see.

BobinBaltimore (profile) says:

Damn Lies and Statistics

Mike, on the study, I think you’re oversimplifying AND perhaps not reading the numbers deep enough. They surveyed 118 papers of all sizes – though they don’t say which ones. The AVERAGE was 1.3 times the actual size of community served.

First there is the very important question about how those communities were defined. I can tell you living in the DC-Baltimore area that neither Nielson not the Census Bureau understand the points of exclusion or overlap between my areas, as an example. Community definitions, especially the old school SMSA are a real farce in some areas of the country.

Second, it’s an average. So, let’s assume (since we don’t know) that they included several mega-papers…NYT and/or DC Post and/or NY Post, etc., etc. The number of uniques those guys get is likely far beyond their SMSA “community” population. It would also be the case for, say, a paper in Ann Arbor or Harrisburg to greatly exceed their SMSA in uniques, especially when Michigan or Penn State football season kicks in. There are numerous reasons why a paper’s online unqiues would outstrip their local community size, especially when the community size is based upon narrow definitions like SMSA. And, to be sure, there are many papers at the other end that aren’t frequented by as broad a group of users. But the AVERAGE still can make sense, in even a little methodological information was provided.

Also, the authors seem to embrace (to use TechDirt’s favorite term) the a priori that the newspapers are all lying about their uniques. What is that based on? So, as for Greg’s comment that “Common sense will tell you the chance is implausibly slim” that a newspaper’s online readership is larger than the community service, I disagree and say it all depends. It is likely true in some cases, but EASILY shown erroneous in others. Where do these assumptions of his come from? He says he studied newspaper site traffic for years. How? Crappy Alexa? ComScore? Did publishers actually let him inside their shops? Judging from his website ( they don’t exactly look like web geniuses. I’d love to see the details of the study…perhaps it is more primary source data and quality analysis than it appears…I doubt it.

All that said, with regard to the conclusion you reach with weak, weak support, I agree. Any expectation of 10 – 15% conversion from print to online subs, regardless of the basis number, is high. And transient visitors (most likely those outside of the base community) are much less likely to pay. Completely agree. Newspapers need to (and many are, I assure you) take this calculation seriously and in a sober state. But the need to trump up a flimsy charge is not necessary to make the point that the expectation *some* newspapers have is patently and characteristically unrealistic.

CAS says:

weak source

I don’t disagree with his points, but Mutter and Harmon discredit the numbers reported by newspaper agencies based on the assumption that newspapers are using server logs, instead of a free and widely known service like Google Analytics, to report unique visitors.

Without further evidence, I have a hard time wholesale discrediting the IT staff of every newspaper in the nation based on their word.

In fact, I did a cursory search and while loading most news sites I found my browser accessing either,, or some proprietary site (i.e. So, again, where did this guy come up with his facts?

Liberty Newsprint (profile) says:

E-Readers Newspapers best way to monetize

I think the hope for Newspapers to monetize their content lies in E-Readers. I would pay for my local newspapers content if they gave me an E-Reader with the subscription. The first E-Reader partnership that offers a FREE E-Reader with bundled subscriptions to Books and Newspapers will realize that they are able to monetize control their digital content.

anymouse (profile) says:

So then newspapers aren't in trouble right? And they don't need any government bailout, since their online presence is doing so well.

Who cares if they are lying to themselves, what they are saying is that they don’t have any problem operating online… SO LET THEM….

Let them put up paywalls and monetize all their online traffic (which is apparently 10x larger than their print editions). Here we were thinking newspapers were failing and in need of a new business model, when really they just need to monetize their existing traffic.

Someone needs to get this info to Obama quick…. Newspapers are FINE, their online readership is on average 10 times their printed edition, so there is no need for government intervention to save ‘reporting’.

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