Reinventing the Newsroom

Loyalists, Drivers and Newspaper Priorities

Posted in Communities, Creating Context, Paid Content, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on October 12, 2009

At last month’s American Press Institute confab, ITZBelden released a very interesting report on potential revenue initiatives for newspapers. (Here it is as a PDF.) At the time, I wrote about what seemed to be a fundamental disconnect between publishers and their readers: 68% of publishers surveyed by ITZBelden thought readers who objected to paying for content would have trouble replacing information garnered from newspaper Web sites, while 52% of readers thought replacing that information would be “very easy” or “somewhat easy.” (Worse, 75% of publishers thought if they cut off their own free newspaper sites, readers would go to the print edition. When asked the same question, 68% of readers said they thought they’d visit other local Web sites. D’oh!)

Reading more deeply, something else jumped out at me. Check out pages 39 and 40. ITZBelden found that so-called core loyalists represented 25% of Website audiences, and defined these core loyalists as readers who visited two or three times a day, 20 days per month. Those core loyalists were “mostly to overwhelmingly local” and responsible for 86% of page views.

That was a startling conclusion. It’s also one that comes with at least two caveats. For one thing, I haven’t seen an examination of the survey methodology. (I’d love to see what my pal Carl Bialik would make of it, particularly since my reaction would be to squeak “Math!” and pass out.) For another, ITZ‘s Greg Swanson is a consultant for Journalism Online, Steve Brill’s venture.

But let’s assume the methodology checks out and think about what it might mean.

If core loyalists are so important, what does that mean for the subscription model — and for other ways newspapers might drive reader engagement? My first reaction was that those numbers made the subscription model look much more viable. But hold on a second: ITZBelden also found that 70% of those core loyalists already bought the print paper. That suggested that newspapers selling subscriptions might be appealing to a small group, most of whose members already paid them for content. Which made the subscription model look weaker.

All this was still chasing itself around in my head last week, when I read Nic Newman’s overview of social media and newspapers. In Newman’s section about social-media participation (it starts on page 42 in the PDF), he notes a Harvard Business School finding that 10% of Twitter users generate 90% of Twitter content, a proportion that’s been seen in studies of other social-media tools such as Wikipedia. And he includes a graphic from Bell Communications research showing a pyramid of 90% lurkers supporting 9% intermittent contributors and a capstone of 1% heavy contributors.

The proportions aren’t the same as 25% of the audience being responsible for 86% of the page views. And there’s not necessarily a direct relationship between core loyalists and heavy participants. But I bet there’s considerable overlap — or at the least, that the core loyalists would be the ones most easily persuaded to engage in newspaper communities and social networks. The general lesson is the same — and so, I think, are the issues that are being raised.

I’ve written a lot about “drive-by readers” — ITZBelden dubs them “fly-bys.” I’ve campaigned for newspaper sites to create new contexts for articles with an eye on converting drive-by readers into more-frequent visitors and then into loyalists. And I still think it’s a good idea to try that — it doesn’t strike me as particularly difficult to figure out where a reader’s coming from and show him, say, other most-popular stories, or what his Facebook friends have read, or what people who also searched for a given term read.

But maybe the largest audience is the smallest piece of the puzzle. Maybe newspapers are far better off focusing on those core loyalists, and devoting their resources to furthering relationships with them in hope that those relationships can form the foundation of a digital business model.

Similarly, maybe newspapers’ community- and social-media efforts should focus not on the big tent of potential users, many of whom are happy to lurk, but on the heavy users who are already generating comments and sharing links. Turning those users into evangelists and distributors may be much more valuable than building a big but shallow community.

None of this makes the challenges faced by newspapers smaller. But it does suggest that the solutions may be found on a smaller scale.


5 Responses

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  1. Perry Gaskill said, on October 13, 2009 at 3:13 am

    Good post. One of the bigger problems with the ITZ-Belden study is that in the slides just prior to to the ones about “fly-bys” versus core loyalty, there are unique visitor numbers indicating UV counts beyond 100 percent of market population. Since those numbers are questionable, and evidently in conflict with recent NAA-Nielsen numbers, it tends to throw the later loyalty numbers into doubt. Nor, as far as I’m aware, has ITZ-Belden done any follow-up to clarify things.

    “…it doesn’t strike me as particularly difficult to figure out where a reader’s coming from and show him, say, other most-popular stories, or what his Facebook friends have read, or what people who also searched for a given term read.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this statement at multiple levels. Automatic fine-grain tracking of visitor geographic locales at a server level is still not trivial. And by automatic fine-grain I mean down to a postal code level without additional elements such as registrations and logins.

    It seems to me that the second part of the statement also tends to distract from what should be a higher priority end game which goes something like this: In a recent Pew Research study on newspaper readership, a key point which emerged among younger readers was that although they liked reading a newspaper, they had a difficult time understanding local issues because of a lack of background available on questions of, for example, civic debate which may have evolved over a period of years. Hence the graying of reader demographics.

    The point here is that until news orgs start providing such background, which has the potential to raise the level of dialogue, the conversation is likely to be limited by parameters of “most-popular,” or Facebook friends, or similar search terms.

    “None of this makes the challenges faced by newspapers smaller. But it does suggest that the solutions may be found on a smaller scale.”

    I agree, but there are a couple of factors with this which make smaller scale innovation problematic. The first is that there seems to be a common viewpoint on the part of newspaper companies that everything that needs to be done needs to involve large economies of scale. For reasons somewhat related to this, there has also been a long-term shift away from a William Allen White style of journalism which reflects local communities toward one which mostly provides local communities with a window on the world. We know instantly about a bomb in Beirut, for example, but almost nothing about business malaise on Main Street.

  2. reinventingthenewsroom said, on October 13, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Thanks for the comment, Perry. I think we agree on most everything here. I absolutely agree on the need for most papers to focus more closely on Main Street than Beirut — I’ve written a few times about how newspapers should do everything in their power to make themselves civic glue again, particularly since Google is still finding its way in local search.

    Your comment re the Pew study reminds me of Matt Thompson’s Nieman article on why readers love Wikipedia. Agree with your points there, though I think there’s still room for providing better context to readers based on how they’ve arrived at an article. Surely we can do both.

    I used “where a reader’s coming from” sloppily — I didn’t mean geography, but the nature of the referring link: Is the reader coming from a query for a certain search term, from a Facebook/Digg link, from a link in a most-popular list, from an “email this” link, etc.

  3. […] Posted in Branding, Communities, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on October 15, 2009 My post earlier this week led to an interesting phone conversation with Greg Harmon of Belden Interactive. […]

  4. Brian Fitzgerald said, on October 15, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Just read the Newman pdf. That sucked away my night.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on October 16, 2009 at 10:12 am

      Sorry to steal your non-work hours, Fitzy. But it was really interesting, right?

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