01-01-04 | Printable Version

Newspaper Websites: Can They Compete?

An Interview with Sammy Papert III

: Generally speaking, what has Belden research shown regarding the local traffic of a newspaper's website compared with other local websites?

Papert: Local area newspaper websites are usually the most trafficked local sites --more than TV, radio, or local guides. And, when it comes to local area information, they often compete favorably with national sites like MSN or AOL in their local geographies.

But, even more important, we think most local newspaper sites compete favorably with local radio and local TV news themselves; that is, not just their sites, but the parent enterprise!

DV&M: If that's true, then why don't we see more advertisers jumping on board?

Papert: Most newspaper sites make most of their money in their classified verticals. That's certainly the first and most logical place to start. On the flip side, it's difficult to get the print sales reps and managers to understand the web can benefit everyone -- the client, the paper and the sales people through bigger commissions. The fact is, most sites do not fully understand their own advertising power, which is considerable, and they are leaving a LOT of money on the table.

DV&M: What do you mean by "advertising power"?

Papert: Any medium's success is based on only three things: audience, reach and frequency...period.

New media, old media, it doesn't make any difference -- if you don't know who your audience is you can't win -- and to a large degree you can't even play.

DV&M: And what do you think is the "advertising power" of local area newspaper websites?

Papert: Most local sites actually outdraw local radio and early evening news in total reach over 30 days. That's reach. Our research tells us 40% of users are "regular" visitors. That means 40% of site users are people who visit the site 16 to 20 days a month and many of those people visit two or more times per day, totaling around 30 times visiting in the average month! That"s frequency.

We also know site visitors are basically 40 years old, 50/50 male and female (though there seems to be a growing female audience), make over $60,000 a year, are generally college graduates and are married, so they are stable, well-off and in general provide one of the best-profiled audiences of any local media, bar none. That"s audience.

So, there you have it -- audience, reach, and frequency -- audience power. That"s what local newspaper websites have; now is the time to rely on the tried and true advertising metrics that will serve newspapers well.

DV&M: What questions should an online advertising salesperson be able to answer on a sales call?

Papert: Anything they are able to say about print, they should be able to say about the web.

They need to know how many people, how often, and who they are. Beyond that they need to be able to PROVE to skeptical buyers that their local online audience is just that -- local.

They also need to understand the web has a different audience from print, not completely so, but significantly. The local newspaper website is in many ways a high-end niche publication of the parent paper -- the reach base is smaller, but we know the visitor group is ready, willing and able to buy just about any product or service.

DV&M: If the web is just, as you say, "a niche market," where does it fit in? How big is that market? And what about these numbers we've been reading for "unique monthly visitors" or "total page views"?

Papert: We are completely convinced that the web audience is a fraction of total circulation, not a multiple of it. And let me be very clear, we mean we think it is a fraction of circulation, not readership.

Here's a typical example. Let's use data from a newspaper in the Midwest with a circulation of 65,000 and a reported 200,000 unique visitors to its website.

How does a 65,000-circulation paper have 200,000 visitors with a typical website market penetration of 10% to 20%? The truth is it doesn't have 200,000 visitors, or even 100,000. It's likely got something like 20,000 to 30,000 visitors in total.

The big numbers websites have relied upon are suspect, though it is completely understandable why they've been used so far -- that's all that existed. They scare the heck out of the circulation directors. And, certainly worse, they confuse clients and sales people --and these are two constituencies you want to be VERY CLEAR on things and on your side.

Telling a sales manager her paper's website has more reach than print is a lot like hanging the proverbial sign at Macy's, "Get it at Gimbels!" It's not something any sales manager worth her salt is going to accept. And they don't. But the result is they don't sell the web at all. And the result is that the local medical center (or, any of a host of prospects) is probably not advertising on many local sites, yet they might have a $50,000 online ad budget most sites don't even get to bid on.

Here's the rub -- sites that are not promoting online to their very best print clients are essentially teaching those clients not to look to them for online solutions.

DV&M: Belden reported for the first time in its Spring 2003 Surveys that sites may have a 2% negative impact on subscriptions -- isn't that cause for concern?

Papert: Well, the real question is "2% of what?" As Belden has come to understand it, sites have only a fraction of the traffic the logfiles suggest. So, the first thing to understand is the real risk to print -- although we certainly think some exists -- is not a matter of tens of thousands of print buyers, but in most cases a matter of perhaps hundreds. And while no one wants to lose any circulation at all, we do not think the web is, in itself, a big factor in declining circulation. Properly handled, the web is an asset, not a liability.

The real opportunities to make money from online ad sales -- real ad sales beyond classifieds and simple banners and tiles -- are substantial. And we think they far outweigh any circulation losses in net derived revenues.

Belden Associates is a leading newspaper market research and consultancy company with over 70,000 annual interviews in newspaper markets with readers and non-readers, and with online users to provide direction, guidance and solutions for both print and online publishers.