Newspaper Websites' Average User Aging as Quickly as Print Readers

The average age of a user of American newspapers’ websites is 42, an age has grown by a year every year since 2001, according to Belden Associates’ annual survey data. This strongly indicates that the newspaper industry’s strategy of going online to appeal to younger readers is failing.

True, the average age of the websites’ is younger than the average reader of a printed edition reader: 42 versus 55. But the American newspaper industry’s online strategy is aimed at reaching users in the 25 to 34 and also 35 to 44 age groups. The Belden data shows that the ranks of newspaper website users who are age 25 to 44 have steadily declined over the past five years while those in the oldest age group (55 plus) have increased. This is why the average age has been rising as fast as the calendar.

If the American newspaper industry is to reverse its declines, it must steadily decrease, not increase, the average age of its users, whether users of print or online.

Greg Harmon of Belden Associates showed me the data during Editor & Publisher and MEDIAWEEK magazines’ Interactive Media conference last month. During my panel there on ‘What’s Wrong with Media’, I was asked by the audience what portion of a newspaper website’s users doesn’t also read the printed edition.

At that moment, I didn’t have most current data to answer. I replied that I thought the answer was about 25 percent, and I referred the audience to Belden Associates for more current data. Harmon, who attended the conference but missed my panel due to a schedule conflict, later showed me his company’s current data.

Since 2001, Belden has interviewed more than 134,000 users (including 38,300 during 2005) of 39 U.S. newspaper websites of various sizes. Here are some highlights about the users:

  • The average users are predominantly female (58 percent), high income (average $61,200), employed, and home-owners. A few years ago, there were more male than female users, but that trend has steadily reversed.
  • Twenty four percent of users are aged between 25 and 34 years, 25 percent between 35 and 44, and another 25 percent are between 45 and 54 years old
  • Nearly three-quarters of users also read the newspaper’s printed edition. Twenty eight percent don’t, and almost all (25 percent of all users) of the ones who don’t those have never subscribed to the printed edition.
  • The effects of the online edition on the printed edition’s subscriptions are minimal: a single percent loss each year (6 to 7 percent cancelled as a result of getting access to the online edition, but another 5 to 6 percent started subscriptions for that reason).
  • Online users who do read the printed edition report reading it a lot less because of their access to the online edition.
  • Thirty seven percent of users of newspaper websites are regular users; the the other 63 percent use the sites only incidentally. Churn of users, whether users of the printed or online editions, is a general problem.
  • The growth in new users of newspaper websites has been steadily slowing. Only 8 percent of users are first time visitors within the past 6 months, only 14 percent within first year. Thirty five percent of users have been using the site for 1 to 3 years and another 36 percent of users for longer.
  • Twenty seven percent of the sites’ users reported visiting daily. Belden’s analysis suggests that over 90 percent of all pageviews are generated by this “Core Audience’.
  • The Belden data shows that newspapers with websites that focus on conserving print circulation by charging paid access to the online edition will be certain to cede the online audience to other competitors like TV stations.
  • Two thirds of users live within the newspaper’s home market. Three quarters live within the newspaper’s state.
  • More than half of all long-term visitors report accessing the newspaper site from two or more computers over a 30-day period.
  • A quarter of all users report visting the site only from work.
  • Seven of every ten are using broadband access.
  • Sites that aggressively develop their content generally show higher levels of satisfaction.
  • Sites with paid access, restricted access, and low-attention are generally rewarded with low marks.
  • Newspaper web sites are becoming used less often than before for entertainment and sports.
  • Newspaper site users are becoming less preferential, with a growing level of “no preference” among news sites.
  • Users report strong but declining use of newspaper classified ads online. Ebay (38 percent of users) , not Craigs list (9 percent), is the main competitor here against newspapers (20 percent). However, newspapers (54 percent of users) are competing well against Monster.com (19 percent) for jobs. Newspapers also report the best percentages for cars (54) and real estate (66).

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