Online newspaper readers: up, down sideways?

tn_trench.jpg Meanwhile on the front lines in the news wars, beleaguered print journos must wonder whether or not time is on their side. Thus far conventional wisdom has held that readers are moving from the once-lucrative newspapers and magazines to the less profitable but fast growing online medium. Thus if the paid newsies can only hold on long enough the crossover will occur and a new business model, based on online revenues, will be reestablished to support news gathering.

But new evidence casts doubt on this hope that has thus-far sustained the shell-shocked foot soldiers of the Fourth Estate. What if the growth of newpaper and other mass media online sites slows and the crossover is delayed, if it does not indeed dissolve?

One of the first glimmerings of this appeared recently in Paid Content, the authoritative media biz e-zine, which  cited a report from a think-tank at from Harvard University to the effect that “based on an examination of traffic to 160 websites over a year-long period, the research found that traffic to newspaper-based sites has leveled off.” The Harvard report noted that brand name sites, like New York, had bucked the trend. ( link to the  full report on PDF). I have the report in my briefcase, waiting for two quiet hours to go over it with a highlighter, at which point I will blog on this again.

 But implicit in this report is the concern that the great bulk of newspaper sites, which have thus been able to build their online audiences by simply repurposing their print matierial for online distribution, may find a new challenge ahead– online viewers may decide that print news on computer screens is as boring as when TV first replicated radio news by sitting the anchor in front of a microphone.

Paid Content editor Rafat Ali downplayed the report by suggesting that it had unused unorthodox audience data material, and that is a fair caveat that should prevent the ringing of alarm bells. (Aside: this would be a good place to apologize to Rafat, about whom I made some snarky reference a few weeks back that annoyed him enough to come back and comment; my bad. Rafat works hard at making sense of this business and should not be needlessly jibed from the peanut gallery.)

That being said, the Harvard findings are consistent with the winner-take-all nature of the Web. If you can read any news site online, and for free, why not register to read the New York Times, rather than the Podunk Times?

Moverover, the Harvard study is not alone. Other indicators suggest a slowing in online news site growth. For instance the Center for Media Research recently issued a summary of a National Newspaper Association report that found:

“more than 59 million people (37.3 percent of all active Internet users) visited newspaper Web sites during the second quarter of 2007, a record number that represents a 7.7 percent increase over the same period a year ago.”

I’m afraid I’m not impressed by single digit growth — not when the troops are holding out waiting for a breaththrough.

(To be continued: daughter on my lab demanding food. I told her she’s nearly four, time to fend for herself, but at this age she’s old enough to complain to her mom, and we wouldn’t want that!)