Even as newspapers make digital content a priority, the challenge remains how to convert online traffic into dollars. Among newspaper readers, 43 percent said they access the news through websites, apps or social media.
The Post-Gazette puts a priority on convincing digital customers to become subscribers, rather than just counting people who visit its website, Lisa Hurm, the Post-Gazette’s vice president and general manager, told me last week. The Post-Gazette, which no longer prints on Tuesdays and Saturdays, offers readers 10 free online articles per month before asking them to pay.
“We are focusing on further growing our digital audience through converting our print readers into regular digital subscribers,” Hurm wrote to me in an email. “We are less interested in chasing clicks than cultivating engaged readers who regularly use any one of our digital platforms.”
Since going all-digital in Pittsburgh in December 2016, the Trib has doubled its number of unique users to 3.1 million per month as of December 2018, CEO Jennifer Bertetto told me. Page views have climbed to 19.1 million from 11.8 million. The Trib does not charge for online content. The numbers for both newspapers include their websites but not their online apps.
About half of the Tribune-Review‘s former print subscribers found their way online, while the company has connected with more digital readers who never took the newspaper, Bertetto said. The current challenge is finding a balance between having short stories that draw in more readers, and longer stories that keep them engaged on the site, she added.
All of the online numbers might make it seem like newspapers are doing fine as long as they convert print readers to the internet, but the dollars do not add up. Circulation revenues have risen over the past decade as newspapers have charged more, but advertising revenue has fallen by nearly half since 2000.
Online advertising brings in far less money than print ads once did, and many advertisers have abandoned newspapers as they have found other ways to reach audiences. Many brick-and-mortar retail companies that used to spend lots of money on newspaper advertising have suffered their own disruption and advertise less as well. The results have been devastating for journalism.
If these survey results are to be believed, the trends for in-depth local news seem bleak. People who are unwilling to pay for news — and who really just want to know about the weather, crime and traffic — will continue to rely on free sources such as television and online sites.
In that case, who will support other types of accountability and enterprise journalism? How long can we expect journalists to hold to account the people in power across government and business — or to speak up for those in our communities who cannot be heard on their own?
That type of quality reporting — on television and on the radio, in newspapers and on the web — plays an important role in a free and open democracy, and it requires broad community support.
The question, though, remains: How do you inspire the public to get involved in that vital support?
In an upcoming column, I’ll explore that question and how it plays out within the local online news landscape.
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.