Green Spectrum: The New Gravitation

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People gravitate to content online differently than they do with print or broadcast or other traditional forms of media. That’s what the Nielsen data table (figure 3) about usages of major U.S. newspaper websites shows. Let’s examine the case of The New York Times’ website.

  • During the six-month period audited by Nielsen, the website of the periodical considered by most media analysts to be the most renowned in the U.S. received 14 million unique visitors (i.e., individual users) per average month, more than any other U.S. daily.
  • However, that average user of this website, NYTimes.com, visited it only 4.05 times during the average month. The data don’t specify it the exact timing of those visits during the average month. It could have been slightly more than four times during a single day, then no further visits that month. Or it could have been a visit once per week during the average (i.e., 30-day) month. Or any other timing of visits during the average month. The important thing to note is that the average visitor visited this daily newspaper’s website only 4.05 times per average month, a frequency equivalent to approximately only one visit per week!
  • Moreover, that average user of NYTimes.com saw only 27 webpages during the average month. This is equivalent to approximately only six and two-thirds webpages per visit. That could have been the NYTimes.com homepage plus five and two-thirds other content pages. Or it could have been six and two-thirds webpages. Or it could have been any combination of the NYTimes.com site homepage, that website’s sectional home pages, and content pages, so long as the number of pages seen totals no more than six and two-thirds. We don’t know how many New York Times stories this data means the average user of NYTimes.com read per average month, although the total number will be no more than 27 per average month or an average of no more than six and two-thirds per visit. The actual number of stories this site’s average user reads is probably even fewer because NYTimes.com sometimes publishes stories across more than one webpages, as a means of reducing the need for story-scrolling and of increasing the number of banner advertisements that can accompany those stories.
  • This 2007 Nielsen data also show that this website’s average user spent an aggregate total of merely 20 minutes and 20 seconds using the website in the average month, an equivalent of approximately just five minutes and two seconds per visit. (An analysis of 2013 Nielsen data by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the average user of U.S. news organizations’ websites spent an average of merely 3 minutes 4 seconds per visit per site.). Combined with the 2007 data of 27 webpages seen per average month, equivalent to six and two-thirds per visit, this data from 2007 showing five minutes and two second (302 seconds) per average visit indicates that the average user of this website spends an average equivalent of no more than 45 seconds on each webpage, a further indication that the average reader is reading fewer than six and two-thirds stories per visit, unless the average reader is somewhat of a speed reader.

Contrast this data with that from the behavior of the average reader of a printed edition of The New York Times. For decades, researchers based in places such as Northwestern University’s Readership Institute in the U.S. or the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands have studied how people read printed daily newspapers.

  • The average user of the printed edition of a major newspaper reads it approximately five out of seven days per week (generally spending some 30 minutes or more reading the thicker Sunday edition). This usage is equivalent to nearly 22 ‘visits’ per month.
  • That average user of the printed edition of a major newspaper, such as The New York Times, spends approximately some 20 minutes per day reading it. The monthly equivalent of this is seven hours and 13 minutes per month.
  • That average reader sees almost every page of the printed edition each day he reads it, and reads at least 2 to 6 stories in per day. The monthly equivalents of that would be his seeing more than 400 pages per month (and reading at least 40 to 130 stories per month).

If we reasonably consider The New York Times to be a major newspaper, then its website’s average online user uses it 82 percent less often and sees 95 percent less of its contents (and 96 percent of its pages) than the average user of the printed edition. Yet the newspaper’s contents, whether in print or online, are the same.

Is this gargantuan difference in usage because the newspaper’s average online user and its average print user are radically different people? Some executives in the U.S. newspaper industry joke that the answer is clearly yes: consumers of the printed editions nowadays are primarily by older-middle-aged or senior citizens. In reality, however, the data about printed newspaper usage has been consistent for decades, long before younger, middle-aged, or senior citizens had access to the Internet. It’s the usage about the new media that aberrant. Moreover, the 2007 Nielsen data about online usage of major U.S. newspapers has been roughly the same from the late 1990’s through today. Plus, the much less frequent visitations and much less thorough usage is true within every age group that uses this content online. And when people of any age group today happen to read newspaper contents in print rather than online, they revert to the printed edition consumption behavior that has been consistent for decades. The gargantuan difference in consumption online versus print is due to differences about how people use content online.

And the gargantuan difference is even starker when you examine the data from daily U.S. newspapers less prestigious than The New York Times or from the other two U.S. national daily newspapers, which have larger circulations. For example, the average user of the Miami Herald’s website visited it 2.09 times per month, see a total of only 8 webpages during all those times and spending a total of only 6 minutes and six second using the site that month (averages of less than four webpages per visit and less than 3 minutes per visit.)

Even when the user is paying to access a newspaper’s website, online usage is no better. For more than 15 years, The Wall Street Journal has been charging for access to its website, yet that website’s average user visits it only 3.92 times per month, sees only 20 webpages, , and spends a  total of less than ten minutes on the site all month. The U.S. newspaper industry has a folkloric belief charging consumers for access to contents makes those consumers value and use the contents more. Data from Nielsen and other auditing agencies puncture that belief. People gravitate to content online differently than they used to do in print or broadcast, even if when they pay for the online content.

When a printed edition was people’s only source of daily changing information in text format, they consumed it rather thoroughly because they had no other choices. And many do still consume it that way when either they have no other choice of access to such contents or have an excess of time to consume. Yet most people now have access via the Internet to a cornucopia of daily changing information in text and all other formats, and they prefer using this electronic cornucopia, rather than any one or more printed editions. Like a giant buffer, their newfound cornucopia of information gives them a much better way of finding items that match each of their own individual needs, interests, and tastes, than any standard daily newspaper can. The result is that when each newspaper puts its daily contents online, the individual items of those contents become ‘unbundled’ according to the principle Evan Schwarz noted and online users hunt and gather from the entire Internet only those items that fit their own individual needs, interests, and tastes, according to the principle Peter Horrocks’ observed. The consumer resulting behavior yields the usage the Nielsen data recorded.

Next webpage: The Mass ‘Fragments’ into Individuals

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