The ways people navigate the digital news environment is the focus of a Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism's study, published today, May 9.
While debating whether the print press will die, if social networks will replace traditional news or not, or, more practically, how to find a suitable revenue model for digital news, it would be useful first to understand what people consume online. Where they go, how they get there and what lures them away: understanding these issues is the aim of the Pew study.
Based on audience statistics from the Nielsen Company, Pew examined the top 25 news websites in popularity in the US, focusing on four main aspects: how users get to the top news sites; how long they stay during each visit; how deep they go into a site and where they go when they leave.
Referring to 9 months of Nielsen data the report says that legacy news organizations (those connected to either a TV or a print news outlet) account for about two-thirds of the top 25 while online-only outlets account for the remaining third. Among the newspapers websites are: The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, LA Times. Among the broadcast TV or cable news sites: MSNBC, CNN, Fox News and BBC News. In addition to these there are: one wire service (Reuters), three hybrids between aggregation and original reporting (Yahoo News, AOL and Huffington Post) and four pure aggregators (Google News, Examiner, Topix and Bing News).
From searching for news to sharing news: Google is still leading, but Facebook is growing
The study differentiates between the two main ways that people access news: going directly to a news site, typing the URL address or arriving there through referral sites.
As the pictures shows, direct traffic makes up 60 - 65% of the total, while traffic from links (the referred traffic) accounts for 35 - 40%.
Google - counting together Google Search and Google News - is still the top source of traffic to top news sites (accounting for 30%), but Facebook, with about 500 million users worldwide, is emerging as an important competitor. For five of the news sites, Facebook was the second or third biggest traffic driver, accounting for, for example, 8% of Huffington Post traffic and 6% or that to The New York Times.
"If searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next", the report says.
The study says that in 2010, all but one (Google News being the exception) of the top sites for which there was referral data derived at least some of their audience through Facebook, whose audience is vastly larger than any single news organization.
Interestingly, it emerged that Twitter is playing a relatively small role in sharing links. "Of the top 21 sites for which there were data, Twitter showed up as referring links to just nine. And for all but one of those nine, Twitter sent only about 1% of total traffic", the report says. Moreover, despite it claimed to have 175 million accounts worldwide in 2010, its influence in the US might be more limited, the study suggested.
News fidelity: casual users vs power users
"Regardless of how they arrive, how often do visitors return to news sites over the course of a month, and how much time do they tend to spend there?" wonders the report.
It underlines that even the top brand news sites depend greatly on "casual users" (77% of the traffic), people who visit just a few times per month and spend only a few minutes at a site over that time span.
Then there is a smaller but reliable group of "power users": loyal and frequent visitors who return more than 10 times per month to a given site, spending more than an hour there.
These two different kind of audience should be reflected in different strategies run by news outlets to engage readers and build revenues.
In & out: where users go when they leave
Regarding the departure sites, the study found out that three are the types actions that tend to pull people away from a main news site: to go to a subdomain within the family of properties owned by the Website's parent company, to go to a sharing site such as Facebook or Addthis and third, to go to Google - not the search engine or news aggregator but the service provider or to specific tools like Google Maps. Unfortunately for advertisers, not a single consumer product site appears in the mix of top destination pages for these news sites.