Trends of Online News

July 23, 2008 • Digital News • by

Corriere del Ticino, June 30.2008
A newspaper’s reputation is as important on the Internet as it is anywhere else. Simply visit the websites of major newspapers and you’ll see that Le Monde or Le Figaro are the most read titles in France, Il Corriere della Sera or Repubblica in Italy and the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal in the US.

Yet unlike the readers of printed newspapers, who tend to be faithful to their favourite publication, the readers of a newspapers’ online edition seem to be rather fickle and erratic. They skip from one online paper to the next, dramatically altering the amount of time spent reading without any discernable reason. Between May 2007 and May 2008, the average reading time devoted to the online edition of a key US newspaper like the Chicago Tribune plummeted from 17 to 8 minutes, while the Seattle Post Intelligencer saw the opposite trend, with reading times rising from 7 to 15 minutes. At present, the newsrooms of the papers involved have yet to uncover a logical explanation for the inconsistencies.Although news websites are undoubtedly becoming more important every day, it remains unclear why certain sites have achieved great success while others fail rather miserably. The news articles offered by search engines like Google (which, under the heading of Google News , offers an up-to-date selection of news reports based on usage frequency) or Yahoo (which, under Yahoo News , offers selected news agency reports) are increasingly in demand. These articles tend to head listings of the most heavily trafficked news sources, as indicated by the numbers published by Nielsen NetRatings (in France, for example, search engines rank third as news providers). Blogs like the US-based Drudge Report are online portals that select – at their own discretion – the news of the day. It seems that many readers arrive at the Washington Post online only after having first stopped by at the Drudge Report !

Some newsrooms have attempted to exploit this trend by purchasing web space on Google linking to specific, high-frequency keywords such as “Berlusconi” in Italy, “Sarkozy” in France and “Obama” in the US. Alas, this strategy doesn’t always pay off. It’s quite an expensive service and the resulting increase in Web traffic tends to be more short lived than substantial.

Rather than relying on search engines, some newsrooms are beginning to bank on the quality of their online editorial output. In other words, publishers divert more money from their printed newspapers to support their online editions, a trend illustrated by the fact that today, 60 and 80 people work for the online editions of Le Monde and Le Figaro , respectively.

Those newspapers that established an online presence early on are now beginning to meet their economic targets, i.e. many of them are breaking even thanks to the (exponentially increasing) advertising income, while others are expected to follow suit within the next few months. In exchange for this success, website operators must constantly renovate graphics, increase interactivity, update content and, above all, offer first-rate coverage in the event of important breaking news. General elections, major sporting events (like EURO 2008) and political scandals tend to produce a staggering increase in traffic for prominent websites. Offering first-rate reports and articles (free, of course) is another prerequisite for increasing a website’s reputation and success. In times when there are few “big events” to report, the browsing behaviour of online readers continues to be highly unpredictable. While readers may take advantage of certain online offers, they remain a fickle bunch and may be easily lured by other online services, including those of competing news sources. Yet upon discovering a favourable news website, readers have a tendency to return regularly. In some cases, those websites are set up by journalists who left major newspapers, as happened to La Libération , which lost a number of its best reporters to Rue89 , a website that is expected to reach a million visitors by the end of this year, roughly a third of the total readership of Le Monde . A great achievement, indeed. It’s a marvel how difficult and fascinating the life of an Internet reporter has become!

Translation: Oliver Heineman
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