Expert Commentary

Generating online traffic for local news: Research-based recommendations for creating website “stickiness”

2015 paper from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center outlining the challenges for local news organizations and providing data-driven recommendations, both technical and strategic, for optimizing their online presence.

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The decline of local news in the United States has been well-documented, and related trends in the media ecosystem remain the subject of intense interest and debate among those who care about the health of democracy. One way of understanding what is going on is that local news organizations are simply going through a period of transformation: What they are losing in revenue they are making up for in new digital broadcast power. Put another way: Although the Web has stolen away advertising revenue, it now allows smaller news outlets to reach much larger audiences, creating vast potential for new revenue sources over the long term.

A 2015 paper for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, “Stickier News: What Newspapers Don’t Know about Web Traffic Has Hurt Them Badly – But There Is a Better Way,” outlines the challenges for local news organizations and provides data-driven recommendations, both technical and strategic, for optimizing their online presence. The author, Matthew Hindman of George Washington University, focuses on the idea of “stickiness,” which is “like a compounded Internet interest rate: it measures how likely users are to visit, and how often they go beyond the first click to the second or third.” Hindman notes that “sites with above-average stickiness grow their audience share over time, by definition; those with below-average stickiness shrink.”

Findings in the paper include:

  • Even if news organizations can hypothetically reach larger audiences, the reality is that they are struggling to get any attention at all within a very busy ecosystem: “The typical local newspaper gets about five minutes per capita per month in Web user attention, less than a local TV station earns in a single hour. Local newspaper traffic is just a rounding error on the larger Web.”
  • The traditional rationale for placing ads in local outlets has been undercut: “Local media in the U.S. have long thrived on the fact that, per person, local audiences were more valuable than national audiences.” There is little that news organizations can do to combat the domination of large Internet companies, which now largely control the online advertising space because they can better target audiences: “Instead of putting a print ad in the paper, digital firms can target just the (far smaller) group of people who are the likeliest customers. The largest digital ad campaigns, on the very largest websites, can be orders of magnitude more efficient than the quaint geographic targeting that newspapers offer.”
  • Although various solutions — hard paywalls or metered paywalls — have been touted as a solution to revenue problems, few address the underlying issue: “The bottom line is that any successful strategy for digital local news requires sites to grow their audience…. Audience growth is just as essential for plans that rely on selling subscriptions.”
  • Many news sites would be well-served to begin addressing these problems by speeding up their site load time — the interval it takes to render the page fully on a Web browser: “Perhaps the single most consistent finding, across the entire web traffic literature, is that faster load times lead to higher traffic. Dozens of studies have replicated this result across different sites and diverse categories of content. Even tiny user delays, on the order of 100 milliseconds, have been shown to reduce traffic.”
  • Personalized recommendation systems have the potential for large payoffs in traffic and stickiness, and therefore more resources should be devoted to developing them. Sites must have fresh content and constant updates, in order to habituate visitors to coming back frequently. Evidence suggests that few readers make it through longer stories, and therefore producing more stories of shorter length could help news organizations more efficiently allocate resources (though this does not mean eliminating all long stories, Hindman notes).
  • Outlets should be A/B testing the way they package and tout stories: “Newspapers can also make significant gains by even just better utilizing the content they already produce. In particular, headline testing and improved lede-writing can result in substantial jumps of traffic.”
  • Careful planning around content and social media streams also can result in large traffic payoffs. “Optimizing for social media is about more than adding ‘like’ and ‘tweet’ buttons to the website, or requiring reporters to tweet, or even Facebook-friendly headline testing like the sort above. Most mid-size and larger local papers now have at least one person focused on social media, which is a start. But the features of a good social media story need to be considered at every part of the news process, from story pitch to final publication.”

“The plight of newspapers is far worse than many journalists and editors realize,” Hindman concludes. “Local newspapers’ digital audiences are simply too small to be sustainable as print ad revenue continues to shrink. No matter which strategy newspapers pursue, from paywalls to nonprofit journalism to doubling down on tablets, digital audience growth is essential. It is unclear how large the paying audience for digital local news can ever be. Ironically, though, the fact that newspaper websites as websites have long been terrible is one reason for optimism. Longstanding errors provide an opportunity for rapid improvements. Doing better requires newspapers to think differently about Web traffic. Newspapers need to invest heavily in measurement and online experiments. Just as important, they need to rethink what they are optimizing for: not raw traffic, but audience growth. Small gains in stickiness can compound enormously over time.”


Keywords: Harvard Kennedy School, Shorenstein Center, future of news, Google Analytics, news, local reporting

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