As reported on Journalism.co.uk Neil Thurman and Merja Myllylahti’s study into online-only newspapers has suggested that going online alone is unlikely to bring an ailing newspaper title back into profitability.
Focusing their research on Finnish financial news site Taloussanomat, which folded its print edition in December 2007 after 10 years of publication), the pair found the title had suffered a drop in unique users of 22 per cent in five months of being online-only.
A week’s newsroom observation, access to web traffic stats and financial information, and interviews with journalists at Taloussanomat give context to the statistics and a deeper insight into the psychological and cultural barriers still at work in the title’s transitional newsroom.
Thurman and Myllylhati in their research article have been careful to point out that their predictions for the wider news industry and online-only newspapers stem from specific examples, so I think it’s important to put our report on their findings into the same context with the information below.
Firstly, the stats on traffic changes after the paper went online only – what size was its web and print audiences previously?
- Between 2001-2006 its daily print circulation fell from 88,000 to 72,000; over the same period it recorded a 1,180 per cent rise in weekly ‘visitors’ to its website;
- It is the second most popular (in terms of traffic) financial news site in Finland;
- The site posted an initial rise in visitors after going online-only and sustained this growth for five months until June 2008 when weekly visitor numbers began to fall (from 292,059 in June to 185,714 in July)
- By October 2008 (10 months after closing the print edition) the site is recording page impression figures 97 per cent higher than the week before it went online-only;
- But, as the research points out, neither the page impressions figure nor the number of weekly visitors has performed better than a title with a print counterpart.
Challenges in the newsroom
- Metrics, central to this study, have become increasingly important within Taloussanomat’s newsroom and work practices, according to the research;
- Journalists are increasingly aware of how individual stories ‘perform’;
- There is an added pressure to this: advertisers, who would previously spend with a title based on its performance as a whole, will now look to the performance of individual articles or site sections;
- “The fact that we need high visitor numbers on the site is part of being an online newspaper, but it has an impact on the journalistic work. The positive side of it is that we know what stories people find interesting. The negative aspect is that the journalists also know that,” Hannu Sokala, editor for development and strategy, told the study;
- Increasing awareness of metrics may also be driving a more consumer/populist news agenda on the site according to some journalists interviewed.
- Despite supporting the amount of space to fill and experiment with online, journalists at Taloussanomat were found to sticking to traditional print work patterns e.g. filling at 5pm, keeping stories the same length as in print, not innovating with use of multimedia;
- Journalists were also largely deskbound within the newsroom – a result of cut resources and also a desire to ‘feed’ the website with more frequent updates and content;
- Yet, the researchers also noted a reluctance amongst journalists to file breaking news in short-form ways, because they view it as ‘incomplete’;
- A higher frequency of online stories had also increased the newsroom’s reliance on agency copy.
The study concludes:
“The online-only newspaper should be freer to exploit the potential of the online medium without the burden of legacy content from a print or broadcast parent. The reality this study found is that the online-only newspaper carries other burdens – financial and logistical – that counteract its advantages. The cumulative effect means killing the print edition does not immediately transform a title’s ability to produce interactive, nonlinear, multimedia content. Nor does it mean that staff are ready or willing to service new publishing platforms or readers’ expectations for multiple daily updates.”
It’s early days – Taloussanomat is one of the first titles to have ditched its print edition to go online-only. According to the study, the fact that unique users decreased folowing the switch shows ‘just how much the medium, rather than the content it carries, determines how news is consumed’.
Yet, as Juha-Pekka Raeste, editor-in-chief and CEO, remarks in the research, practices such as the increased ‘churning’ of copy are not a long-term solution. Instead Taloussanomat needs to focus on niche content and coverage, he adds.
It is clear Taloussanomat and other online new entrepreneurs have ideas about how editorial content can be adapt successfully to online – but can the necessary staff resources and revenues need to fund this be adapted in the same way?