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Readership – low expectations?

The 2008 Readership Study from Northwestern University is out. For online managers – the news is not good:

… 62 percent of respondents said they had never visited the local newspaper’s Website, and only 14 percent said they had visited between the last seven to 30 days, numbers that have improved only a little over the last five years.

I need to dig into the numbers a bit – they seem quite divergent from what our own local surveys have shown. But in any case I think the ‘bad’ news could be ‘good’ news.

The online effort at many papers has gotten a lot of attention in the past 3 – 4 years. We have seen a rapid growth in (or at least an attempt at) improving usability, Web-first content, multimedia, and community building. Generally speaking there seems to be an impression that newspapers are taking online seriously now and real progress is being made.

Newspapers thought the same thing from 1940 – 1990 when newspaper circulation increased by around 30 million copies nationally. Advertising boomed, news staffs grew and newspapers turned 20% profits.

Unfortunately, during the same period the population of the United States grew by about 150 million people. We thought we were doing great but we were not even keeping pace. Newspapers were losing their cultural significance but the problem was obscured by a growing population.

Is online in the same position now?

Traffic to news Web sites has grown sharply over the past 10 years. But, the percentage of people online has grown even more sharply – and is now starting to level off somewhere south of 90%. We still have some bounce to come via broadband adoption – but for the most part the boom is over.

So, have we been doing a good job over the past 3 or 4 or 10 years – or have we once again simply been the beneficiaries of simple population growth. Ten or 15 percent traffic growth annually does not look so good if our real potential was (hypothetically) 50 or 60%.

The good news about the Readership Study is that even if your paper is doing well – growing readership and revenue – maybe the report is the excuse we need to kick-start a discussion around the thought that ‘good enough’ may not be good enough.