Image Courtesy of GannettInspired by our meeting last week with LA Times reporter T. Christian  Miller, I decided to take a closer look at some of our data from the newspaper study we conducted this summer.  I wanted to see how the online versions of newspapers are performing compared to their print circulations.  The findings were interesting and indicate that there are many  factors besides Web features that play a role in making a newspaper website successful.

To determine how newspaper websites are out performing (or under performing) their print counterparts, I checked out the statistics available on Alexa.  I found the page views per million (a 3 month average) and the overall website rank (also over a 3 month average).  I then ordered the 100 newspapers we studied according to their overall Alexa rankings. 

After doing that, I did a bit of math.  By subtracting the print ranking from the relative online ranking (based on the figures from Alexa), I determined the relationship between these two values.  I call this the "Differential Value", and it represents how much one version of each paper (online or print) is outperforming the other.  You can see these values and all the rankings on this excel sheet.

Papers with a large but negative differential have a website that greatly outperforms the print version of the newspaper.  To elucidate this point, let's look at a specific example.  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ranks #79 on our list of America's most widely circulated papers.  However, its online ranking is much higher: it's website is the 9th most popular newspaper website.  Therefore, the Post-Intelligencer has a differential value of -70, showing that the online version of this Seattle newspaper out performs the print version by 70 ranking slots (we'll call them points).

Here are some other papers whose websites greatly outperform their print counterparts (followed by their differential value):

On the other end of the spectrum, there are papers whose websites greatly under perform their print circulation.  These newspapers will have a large but positive differential value.  The newspaper whose website most underperformed its print version is the Rocky Mountain News (Denver).  This paper ranked 26 on our list of most popular print papers, but its website came in dead last.  Here are some other papers whose websites are lagging behind printed versions (followed by their differential values):

The differential value also tells us when online versions of newspapers are doing about as well as the print versions.  This was true for most of the major papers, such as the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal, whose differential values were all close to zero.

In order to take this concept a step further and in an effort to determine what exactly makes for a popular newspaper website, I attempted several statistical regressions.  I tested several combinations of Web features and print circulation to see if any of these independent variables correlated with a large number of page views.  None of these combinations gave me statistically significant results, which tells me that there must be more to a great newspaper website than just features.

So why does the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have such a popular website?  And why does the Rocky Mountain news perform so much better in print than it does online?  At a quick glance, neither of these sites looks so fantastic or so terrible that users would be attracted/pushed away based on the site's appearance; and our newspaper study indicated that most papers have a similar core of Web features, so what's going on here?

I believe there are two major factors playing a role here besides a site's Web features.  These are, of course, unproven, but logical nonetheless.

  • The "wired-ness" or "geek factor" of the newspaper's market.  Seattle, for example, is known for being a relatively wired city (it ranks #3 on Forbes' list of America's most wired cities).  Public WiFi is gaining popularity out west, with Seattle boasting 4 pu
    blic wireless hotspots per capita.  I think it's a logical conclusion that a more wired city would be more likely to have successful online newspapers than cities with fewer wireless options.  People who are deft at surfing the Web and who use the Internet regularly are probably more apt to get their news online than in print.  This is particularly relevant because Alexa only gathers statistics from computers that have installed a special Alexa toolbar.  It might be safe to surmise that people in less wired cities would be less likely to use such an online tool, resulting in lower online rankings for newspapers from such cities.
  • Intra-Market Competition.  The popularity of of a newspaper's website may also depend on how many competitors it has within the same regional area.  If there are several competing papers and one paper corners the online market, the sites of the secondary papers  will be less popular than the primary newspaper.  Take Denver as an example.  There are two relatively equal competitors, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.  The print rankings of these papers are #25 and #26, respectively, and upon first glance, their websites don't look very different.  But the Denver Post has an online ranking of 36, while the Rocky Mountain News website came in dead last (100).  This market is an example of the Denver Post developing some sort of online edge over the Rocky Mountain News and diverting traffic from the paper's website.  Newspapers that don't have a major print competitor probably won't have this problem.  Such examples could be the News Journal from New Castle, Delaware and the Patriot News from Harrisburg, PA, both of which serve smaller cities and lack a major competitor. Thus, these papers have captured the online audiences from their respective cities and thus have a higher-than-expected online ranking.

This is not to say that Web features play no role in the popularity of a  website.  The Post-Intelligencer, for example, offers a mobile version of its website and makes its Web-specific content, such as blogs and multimedia, very easy to find by including these features on its navigation bar (something that many papers fail to do).  In contrast, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which ranks #59 in print circulation, has a disaster for a website.  As a result, its website ranks #98 (a differential value of 39!). 

Based on this analysis, it's pretty clear that for a newspaper to have a successful website, it obviously needs to offer a substantial number of Web features, but also needs to develop an advantage over its immediate regional competitors on the Internet.  For papers that serve smaller cities, it is probably more effective to look at their online performance two ways: 1) Its own online performance compared to its own print performance, and 2) its online performance in relation to other papers in the same marketing region, and its Web performance compared to other papers in a similar print circulation class.  Looking at website success on these terms may give editors a better picture of how the paper and its website measure up.