Warnings about the online-only path

Neil Thurman and Merja Myllylahti of City University in London have published a study "Taking the paper out of news" in the academic journal Journalism Studies, examining the case of Taloussanomat, a Finnish financial publication that responded to the economic failure of its print product by shifting to a Web-only, advertising-supported strategy.

The results are quite mixed. The brand has been preserved but altered to become more focused on consumer finance. Losses continue but have been substantially reduced. Revenue is down (print revenue does not automatically migrate to the online product) but costs are reduced even more.

As I read the study, a couple of points stand out as stark warnings to the rest of us:

  • Stalled traffic. Taloussanomat, Europe's "first online-only newspaper," has struggled and hasn't kept pace with competitors that also offer much of their content in print form. For me, this raises questions about how to promote a service that doesn't insinuate itself into potential users' lives the way print can (whether through delivery or ubiquitous presence on newsstands). Websites wait for visitors to come to them. A website with an old-media partner has a built-in promotion and marketing advantage.
  • Tail-chasing journalism. The reporters are pouring around 100 stories a day into several websites. While Taloussanomat might claim they're producing original work, Thurman and Myllylahti found "80 percent of the site’s stories were based on news agency material or stories published in other newspapers or news sites." This reflects a tail-chasing behavior that I believe is deeply and dangerously embedded in journalism culture. We all need to restructure our priorities so that every act of journalism creates unique value. As Jeff Jarvis has said, "Do what you do best, and link to the rest."
  • Time spent by consumers with the journalism has declined by perhaps 75 percent. My interpretation: A print experience is focused and immersive. On the Web, everything else is just a click away, and consumers flit about from site to site. This isn't something we can change. Smart companies (Google) deal with this by creating reasons to return, linking out aggressively rather than trying to maintain walls to keep users inside. As I've said before, loyalty accrues to the service that helps us discover things.

The study can be purchased for $30 from Informaworld.


Hi Steve. Front Porch Forum was accused this week of hastening the demise of community newspapers: http://tr.im/cnpdecline Your blog is a must read, but as I deal mostly with traditional media in a small market, it can feel like you're describing a different species.

That's amazing. I just Twittered that link, along with a comment: Discussion isn't the enemy of newspapers. Disconnection is the enemy.

Steve - I was at the presentation they gave this past weekend at the International Symposium on Online Journalism (all our livetweets of the event are at the hashtag #isoj) and yeah, the numbers on Taloussanomat felt like a kick in the stomach. Obviously, if the practical experience of media organizations making the long-urged leap from print to digital looks like this, the future is bleaker than any of us had hoped. One point that conference organizer Rosental Alves brought up that I thought was salient, was that the reported plunge in "time spent" may be misleading. The online edition of Taloussanomat has traffic stats that say the average reader spents about 1.5 minutes/day on the site. Meanwhile, for the print product, the time spent was allegedly 36 minutes a day. I say allegedly - as did Rosental - because the time spent is obviously self-reported. Nobody yet has figured out a way to implant some kind of tracking mechanism in print pages that tracks how long you spend on each page. So I'm guessing the metrics on time spent were collected like this: "Hey, how long do you spend each morning reading the newspaper?" "Uh (brief pause, feeling a bit guilty about not reading enough, decides to make self look better like a kid being asked about a book report) ... about half an hour. Maybe 45 minutes. Probably somewhere in between." Meanwhile, the online edition suffers from the low micro-visits by search engine spiders, etc. Well, at least that's how it works in our dreams. But even taking all that into account, it cannot be denied that the changeover from print to digital is not the bed o' roses the optimistic hoped for. I'm hoping that some wisdom comes out of this study - that is, that we figure out what's broken here, what can be done to boost the traffic, etc. And that this doesn't become yet another cudgel for the bitter curmudgeons to use to bop around the in-house geeks.