Does Online Publishing Cannibalized Same Day Newsstand Sales?

    [A subscriber to the Poynter Institute‘s Online News discussion list this week asked for any research or experience about whether putting a story on a newspaper’s Web site the day before print publication has an affect on newsstand sales on the day of publication. Here’s my quick reply.]

Belden Associates has annually surveyed thousands of online newspaper users about that question. You should ask Greg Harmon there for the latest data.

During 2003, Belden’s survey of nearly 8,000 users among 14 U.S. newspaper sites showed minor cannibalization (8 percent bought newsstand copies more often, but another 12 percent bought less often).

Although that 4 percent differential indicates online publication is eroding print circulation, the same survey indicated that only 25 percent of newspaper website users are (or have been) newsstand copy purchasers. Another 27 percent of the sites’ users had read print edition only when someone gave them a copy and a further 10 percent had never read a printed edition. So, a case can be made that if online publication is causing a few percentage cannibalization of print circulation, it’s meanwhile gaining at least 37 percent of its readership from people who haven’t, and probably wouldn’t, buy a print edition anyway. A 4 percent loss against at least a 37 percent gain.

Moreover, (1) print edition circulation has been shrinking during the past 40 years, long before the Web existed, while now online users are the only positive long-term trend newspapers in newspaper industry statistics; (2) the median age of an online user was 39 compared to a generation older median for print edition readers; and (3) the household income demographics of those online users are much higher than for print readers, despite the latters’ greater age.

The only real defect (and it’s an Achilles Heel) in all this is the business model. The revenues and net incomes per user of print editions are much more lucrative than per online users. A Borrell Associates survey of 249 U.S. newspaper websites during 2003 found that the average newspaper site earned $7.93 annually per user. Compare that with a range of $400 to $1,000 annually in revenues per circulation for most print editions.

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