[intro]The demise of print media has been widely predicted in the last two decades. But print can survive, says a report from Harvard University, if the sector “gets a grip on the digital world”.[/intro]

I have a friend who tells a delightful story about how he was often hauled out of his classroom at primary school because his grandmother was dying. Family matriarchs got wise after a while and ordered their funeral garb from the local retailer on ‘appro’. Taking it back when Ouma made yet another miraculous recovery. The constant reports of the death of local newspapers echoes this story.

However, a recent report from a Harvard University team says the mourning black can be mothballed for now if, and only if, the print media gets a grip on the digital world. It all boils down to the “stickiness” of local newspaper sites, say a paper published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Photo Courtesy The Media Online

“Stickiness is like a compounded Internet interest rate: it measures how likely users are to visit, and how often they go beyond the first click to the second or third. Sites with above-average stickiness grow their audience share over time, by definition; those with below-average stickiness shrink. Site speed is one of hundreds of site features that affect audience growth,” says the paper by Matthew Hindman who is a Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University.

Although the paper focuses on the local newspapers in the United States – Hindman says they “have always been the core of American journalism” – some of the lessons learnt are more than applicable to Southern Africa and possibly the rest of our Continent.

The Good News

“The good news is that newspapers can do much better. Newspapers can adopt better models of how Internet traffic works, and better metrics for measuring success.

“With the right metrics, and a robust infrastructure for testing, newspapers can put themselves on a path to consistent growth.

“Achieving these gains starts by thinking differently about digital traffic. In the past decade there have been countless computer science studies on digital audience building. For newspapers, though, this research on stickiness reads like an indictment. Local newspaper sites – and especially smaller newspapers – have long broken all the rules for building a sticky site. Most still load painfully slowly, a problem that has gotten even worse with the shift to mobile news. They are difficult to navigate and – let’s be honest – often ugly. Many newspaper sites still showcase static content that changes little throughout the day. They display flat headlines, often without accompanying photos or multimedia elements. They are poorly integrated with social media. They lack personalised recommendation systems to move users seamlessly from one article to the next. And while newspapers increasingly pay attention to digital traffic, they often do not understand what online metrics really mean.”

The rest of the paper deals with:

  • The Myth of Monetization – Labeled as the “central fable of digital news”
  • The Dynamics of Web Traffic – “Newspapers need to focus not on total traffic, but on stickiness – on a site’s growth rate over time. In short, newspapers need to think dynamically.”
  • False Solutions – “Positive sum solutions, that grow the digital pie for all news organisations, have remained elusive.”

Hindman deals with an array of “False Solutions”, including the problems with pay walls and the misguided hopes for tablet as well as mobile news.

The Nieman Lab has done a good job of summarising the report. The key points for local newspapers can but summed up as follows:

  • Only 0.5% of web traffic goes to local news in the USA
  • Newspaper sites get only about half of it, or 0.25% of web traffic
  • Local news sites get an average of only about 5 minutes a month from their visitors

These figures are probably even lower in South Africa where a smaller proportion of the population have constant, reliable and affordable access to the internet.

Hindman summarises it bluntly:

“The typical local newspaper gets about five minutes per capita per month in Web user attention, less than a local TV station earns in a single hour. Local newspaper traffic is just a rounding error on the larger Web. The bottom line is that newspapers cannot monetise audience they do not have…”

My friend’s grandmother did die in the end. Without him being hauled out of class once more. And, at a time when the matriarchs and the local purveyor of funeral wear were caught most unawares.