The struggle for large daily metropolitan newspapers to stay profitable and survive is based on the race between the drop in their print advertising and the improvement of their online sales. Newspaper industry costs are rising along with fuel and commodities prices. Most large dailies have resorted to lay-offs. Even The New York Times and Washington Post are cutting staff, including reporters and editors.
Revenue is falling sharply based on a review of the numbers from publicly traded newspaper companies. The sole exception may be The New York Times Company, where online revenue is now well over 10% of the total. In April, NYT online ad revenue rose almost 26%. The company claims its collection of web properties had the 11th largest number of online visitors in America, with over 49 million unique visitors in April. Gannett’s sites rank in 36th place with 23 million unique visitors, but most newspaper companies are not as lucky. Even The Washington Post was only able to generate $27 million in online revenue in the first quarter. This was a very modest increase of 8% over the same period the year before. This revenue compares to $206 million in total sales for the newspaper division during this period. That spells trouble, no matter how Wall St. looks at it.
Because online versions of major newspapers are certainly the key to future revenue growth and profits, 24/7 Wall St. looked at the websites of the top 25 newspapers in the US based on their circulations as of March 31, 2008 taken from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
The sites got ratings of “A” through “F” based on: 1) strength of content, 2) ease of use and navigation, 3) use of new web technology including comments sections, message boards, and multimedia, 4) lay-out 5) presence of a strong set of current advertisers, and 6) the size of their audiences based on measurements from the Compete website visitor database for April.
The most important conclusion from this review of online newspaper sites is how uneven the quality is from property to property. Some of the smaller papers which probably have modest resources have done an extremely good job of engaging readers, using the best tools of the internet, and putting up content which adds to the experience of the subscriber to the physical newspaper. Some of these sites are likely to draw multiple visits from the same person throughout the day, the Holy Grail of online content behavior. Other sites seem to be designed to keep readers away. There is clearly not much benchmarking going on in the online part of the newspaper industry, and with the increasing risk that more newspapers will fail,not using a standardized measurement of excellence for improvement is a real shame.
The Wall Street Journal and USA Today rank among the top 25 newspapers, but they are not included here because they are national properties and have access to corporate budgets which may not be available to most of the websites reviewed. It is safe to say that WSJ.com is as good if not better than any other online paper. It has invested huge sums, successfully, in interactive features, the use of blogs, reader response tools and multimedia features from video to charting. It is not, however, a general daily paper. It is a financial publication. News Corp, which owns that paper, is out to change that to some extent, but the metamorphosis is in its early stages.
The final judgment of a newspaper’s online edition is whether, using the advantages of the internet, is it better than the paper itself. As one industry expert told 24/7, “The strength of a newspaper web site is its ability to present almost endless information, far more than it could ever afford to print. The best newspapers take advantage of this by explaining in their print editions where additional information on a particular subject can be found — the full text of a speech or a court document, for instance.”
1. The New York Times (Average daily circulation 1,007,256) (Compete online audience: 12,188,886) NYTimes.com is the single best daily newspaper site in the country. NYTimes.com not only carries a significant amount of content from the print paper’s news hole, it also has many features built just for the online version. These include state-of-the art slide shows, charting, and an immense amount of video content. NYTimes.com is also full of areas where readers can respond with comments or in polls. Many of the paper’s best writers contribute blogs which is a way to keep readers coming back to the site throughout the day. A number of the sites 24/7 reviewed took their print edition’s content when it was produced in the morning and posted only that. Very little if anything was updated later. Across the entire NYTimes.com site, stories are updated hundreds of times a day. Breaking news is often reported by the paper’s own staff and, unlike most other online sites, NYTimes.com uses news sources like the AP as a supplement and usually not as a primary source of content. A great deal of the depth and richness of the site is due to the resources of the print paper. This cannot be matched by any other property. But, that can in no way be viewed as a negative. An advantage is an advantage, no matter how it is gained. NYTimes.com has an abundance of national and local advertising. The great breadth of its content makes it, in many ways, better than the print edition from which it was created. NYTimes.com does a good job of supplementing its own content with articles and outside blogs from around the internet. The site uses the company Blogrunner for this, and it is very effective. If readers want to make a small investment in a highly useful digital technology that brings the look and some of the feel of the print paper to the PC, the Times Reader is the most advanced product of its kind. Grade: A
2. The Los Angeles Times (Average daily circulation: 773,884) (Compete online audience: 3,917,054) The Latimes.com is part of the largest newspaper on the West Coast, owned by the beleaguered Tribune Company. The website is relatively primitive compared to many of the others run by large papers. Navigation, which runs down the left hand side of the pages, is clumsy. The site has a moderately complete video news section. Most of the major stories have a video component. The featured articles on the site play from the strengths of the best reporters from the newspaper. The blogs at the site can be accessed from the homepage, but a visit to the blog section gives the reader a long list of unrelated content. It would be much better if this content was featured more prominently within the relevant sections of the site. As the reader would expect from LA’s paper, the entertainment section is complete and well designed. Unlike many metro paper news sites, LATimes.com does an excellent job of presenting local news instead of feeding the reader items that he can find on TV or other online news sites. Grade: B
3. The New York Daily News (Average daily circulation: 703,137) (Compete online audience: 1,729,407) The size of the NYDailynews.com web audience is only a little more than two times its paid print circulation. That is a smaller ratio than with other large papers. This may be due to the fact that much of the NY Daily News readership is blue collar. It will certainly make it harder for the company to offset falling print revenue with online sales. NYDailynews.com is clean and easy to read. The navigation is excellent. The editors made a good decision to run the major headlines for each section (e.g. travel, entertainment, sports) off the homepages. This allows the reader to see the most important content on a single page. It is not a surprise that gossip and entertainment headlines are near the top of the front page and this plays to the paper’s strength. A review of the major sections demonstrates that the web designers have carried the format of presenting the most important headlines on a subject with a brief summary to each section’s homepage. This is an extremely helpful roadmap for the reader. Because the paper is read mostly for local content, the site has given that special attention. The paper has a “your neighborhood” search feature to show recent home sales, crime rates, and nearby establishments. Advertising in the paper is modest. Much of it looks like it is sold by national advertising networks, which means the yield-per-page is probably low. The site’s multimedia and interactive features are very, very modest. Grade: B-
4. The New York Post (Average daily circulation: 702,488) (Compete online audience: 1,899,003) NYPost.com is too close to simply being a copy of the daily paper scanned and put online. Since the property is owned by News Corp. which has a large internet business and also WSJ.com, it is disappointing that almost none of this expertise has been applied to the daily paper. The website’s video and picture sections look like an afterthought. The best navigation bar for finding site content is at the very bottom of the homepage and is hard to locate. Although NYPost.com has a very good business section, the website uses the strenghts of the print edition: gossip and sports. The local news coverage is particularly weak, a surprise for a paper in the nation’s largest city, a metropolitan area with an especially wide diversity of neighborhoods, events, and information. There is a lot of very good scoop in the gossip section of the paper, but this section looks like it was designed by a schizophrenic. The gossip section of the paper does contain some clever features like a celebrity star map for tracking the famous, but it is buried deep enough in the section that it is hard to find. The sports section is at least fairly easy to navigate and has its fair share of video. NYPost.com does not do the newspaper any favors. Grade: C
5. The Washington Post (Average daily circulation: 673,180) (Compete online: 6,548,678) The figures from the WPO 10-Q indicate that revenue for the company’s online business is relatively small and represents only a modest part of the sales for the newspaper group. That is unfortunate. If any company should be right behind The New York Times in internet revenue it is the Post. The front page of Washingtonpost.com is extremely simple. The site does do one notable thing on the homepage. It hosts web discussion forums which are among the best interactive features 24/7 found among news sites. A great deal of the website is devoted to political coverage, as everyone would expect. But, the interactive editorial features here are very modest, which means that the website is not playing to the strengths of the paper. One clever part of Washintonpost.com is that it makes use of widgets to get Post content onto other sites. Washingtonpost.com has its share of blogs and multimedia, but most of the design effort is lackluster and is not set up to make the site “sticky”, an overused but accurate description of how sites drive return visitors. Much of Washingtonpost.com needs to be upgraded. The paper has the content to support a much better website. Grade: B-
6. The Chicago Tribune (Average daily paid circulation: 541,663) (Compete online audience: 1,954,491) Chicagotribune.com is mediocre, especially for a paper the size of the Trib, the flagship of The Tribune Company. Some of the local coverage is quite good, such as it political column, Clout Street. “The Swamp” from the paper’s DC bureau is one of the site’s strengths. However, the homepage of the site is confusing and overly busy. Figuring out how to get to other sections of the website is difficult because navigation for classifieds runs “above the fold” on most PCs and editorial navigation runs “below the fold.” The content of the sports section is good, but it certainly does not take advantage of the video, graphic, and photo resources the best websites use to keep the interest of readers. The local coverage is excellent. Access to local columnists is easy. This should be The Tribune Company’s most sucessful site. Grade: D
7. The Houston Chronicle (Average daily paid circulation 494,131) (Compete online audience: 1,609,496) The online version of the Houston Chronicle is called Chron.com, which is clever because it makes the site address easy to remember. Right up front, the editors put the navigation for Chron.com at the top of the page. Getting where the reader wants to go is never an issue. The lay-out could be a bit more elegant and less “cut and paste”. One of the site’s strengths is that it puts the reader’s involvement in the spotlight with blogs, photos, and stories, with access to these features coming from the middle of the homepage. Headlines for major stories also run on the homepage so that the reader can move into the site not just by section (e.g. business, community news, metro), but by major feature. Too many of the lead stories at the top of the main page come from the AP. Many newspaper sites put AP stories in a separate box so that local reporting gets special treatment giving the reader and the reporter a sense that this is a local paper, not a collection of newswire headlines. Columns and blogs run next to the news stories. This engages the reader and keeps him on the website longer. Chron.com is weak on interactive and multimedia features, which is too bad because the written content is so strong and the site is well-designed. Grade: B+
8. The Arizona Republic (Average daily paid circulation: 413,332) (Compete online audience: 1,204,890) This is the first newspaper on the list which abandons its name in the website address completely. The site is called azcentral.com. That seems overly confusing, but it has nothing to do with whether the online paper is good or not. The design of the front page is very basic, which is not bad. One of the clever things the editors have done is run the lists of their “picks”, the most read stories, the most recent stories, and those with the most comments at the top of the front page. This gives the reader several reasons to gointo the website before he has even seen most of the normal headlines. The front page also lists stories by section which helps readers find what they want without confusion. News about the local community is also right on the homepage. Many of the metro newspaper sites 24/7 reviewed seem to have forgotten that most importantly they are local information outlets. People can watch the space shuttle take off on CNN. The inside pages of the paper are clean but a bit visually dull. The editors have not gone out of their way to provide much in terms of interactivity. Multimedia use is also modest. Grade: B-
9. Newsday (Average daily paid circulation 379,613.) (Compete online audience: 1,543,183) The front page of the Newsday sight is monumentally confusing. Classified navigation is above the normal table of contents. However, Newsday does do something very intelligent right up front. It highlights the local news by county and city and lists the paper’s exclusives near the top of the page. Even within sections like business, the local information is given top billing. Newsday.com benefits from using video often. It allows local coverage to become visual, which tends to pull the reader in. Newsday.com pushes its web exclusives hard. The editors know that pointing out what the web offers outside the print newspaper gives visitors a reason to look at special stories which they can’t find elsewhere. National and international news are not featured prominently here, which is probably an excellent idea. Grade B+.
10. The San Francisco Chronicle (Average daily paid circulation: 370,245) (Compete online audience: 2,716,654) This site, known as SFGate.com, is one of the best online newspapers in the country. The pages are clean and navigation is intuitive and easy. There is a slide show just below the major headlines called “Inside SFGate” where the editors can highlight their best stories. Bay area news, the paper’s local coverage, is in the middle of the homepage. The ease of getting around the site and allowing the reader to find what is interesting continues to each of the major news sections. SFGate has well thoughtout use of interactive features, video, polls, special reports and blogs. RSS feeds are set up by category so readers do not have to receive all of the paper’s headlines or even all the headlines from one section when they go to the RSS readers on their PCs or mobile devices. This is how an online paper should be designed from top to bottom. Grade: A.
11. The Dallas Morning News (Average daily paid circulation: 368,313) (Compete online: 1,476,081.) Dallasnews.com looks more like a pile of clippings instead of a newspaper website. Everything the readers need is there, but the layout is wild and unorganized. At least Dallasnews.com puts the local news front and center. National news is down the page below sports. The editors have their priorities right on this issue. This was the only site where a standard PC pop-up blocker stopped the process of getting to a story. The site designer should have avoided this mistake. The individual section pages drop the site’s full navigation which makes it very hard for the reader to know where to go next. The business section does a good job of focusing on the region’s major industries like airlines and energy. Business may be the strongest section of the site. Many of the other sections are a bit sparse. Multimedia and video have a modest presence on the site and is pushed off to the side. Grade: D
12. The Boston Globe (Average daily paid circulation: 350,605) (Compete online audience: 2,757,866) The newspaper site, known as Boston.com, clearly has a large following in New England. It has an impressive ratio of online visitors to paid print subscribers. It is too bad the product does not deliver more. It is odd that NYTimes.com is such a good website and Boston.com has such a long way to go. Both are part of the same parent company. The top part of the home pages is a strange collection of stories which do not seem to bear any relationship to one another. Job information is next to MTV pictures and Tatum O’Neal’s arrest. The reader would be better off going to the section called “Today’s Paper”. It is the easiest part of the site to navigate and understand, essentially a reprint of the print paper. The lay-out of the new page is difficult to follow, but the editors do lead with local news. There are some creative sections, like a homicide map of Boston, to keep readers on the site. The navigation in the business section is a little easier for the reader, as it is in the sports section. The use of multimedia is modest. There are a few videos. Most sections have blogs and there are several community chat rooms. But, the overall effort is uninspired. Grade: C.
13. The Newark Star-Ledger (Average daily paid circulation: 345,130) (Compete online audience: 1,077,127) The paper calls itself New Jersey’s largest local paper. The homepage of NJ.com was among the most cluttered of all the sites that 24/7 examined. The priority of the stories on the page and the navigation is confusing. The editors are smart to have a newsletter sign-up area near the top of the homepage. Getting additional links to the readers is an excellent way to bring them back to the online paper. The center of the homepages does focus on local news and the paper’s premier columnists are featured as well. Oddly enough, this includes their pictures but not a summary of their most recent articles. The reader is given no reason to check a columnist unless he already knows the person’s work well. Staff blogs are also in one place for easy reference. The sections within the site do not get any better. The sports area is almost all text links. The usual power of photos and videos are poorly used here. The news section is a “stream of consciousness” set of headlines mixing coverage from reporters and the AP. The lay-out is primitive. There are links to videos but none of the videos are shown on the page to pull readers into that section. There is a place for forums and blog posts, but it is not organized in a way that makes it clear what the reader is supposed to react to. Grade: D
14. The Philadelphia Inquirer (Average daily paid circulation: 334,150) (Compete online audience: 1,047,083) Philly.com starts with a promising homepage. The local news leads on the top and the site navigation is easy to find and read. The most important sections are highlighted with key headlines and photos. The prominent video section is easy to use and is set-up to give the reader a broad range of viewing options. The simple and fairly effective lay-out is carried into the major sections. The news section is broken into categories which make it easy for the readers to follow their interests. Columnists are featured with a description of their most recent work. The sports section is the cleanest and easiest to follow section in Philly.com. It has a good balance of clear navigation, crisp headlines, strong photo presentation, along with videos. For reasons that are hard to understand, the editors let some of this simplicity slip away in other sections like travel and living. Philly.com gave back some of its hard-won advantages in these portions of the site. Grade B-
15. The Cleveland Plain Dealer (Average daily paid circulation: 330,280) (Compete online audience for April: 694,328) Cleveland.com has a very low ratio of online readers to paid subscribers which almost certainly makes it harder for the internet site to contribute a great deal of revenue. The homepage is a bit jumbled, but the navigation is not difficult. The editors put their picks at the top of the page and then each major section is presented in order with headlines and photos. A column called “real time news” runs down the right side of the page and is confusing. The priorities of the editors are unclear as the two columns of news headlines compete with one another. The navigation tabs for each inside section do have a drop-down to show the readers what is in that section before they go there. This is a helpful guide to finding stories without having to wander around the website. Cleveland.com is another example of editors taking something that works well, the homepage lay-out and navigation, and abandoning it in the inside section. The local news page begins the confusion and the confusion continues in the entertainment section. Cleveland.com does a better job sticking to its easy-to-use pages in sports. But, a reader could go through the major sections of Cleveland.com and never know that they came from the same website. Grade: C-
16. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Average daily paid circulation: 326,907) (Compete online audience: 1,197,069) The site goes by the name AJC.com. Clean. AJC.com is very easy to follow. The homepage is as well organized as any website 24/7 looked at. Navigation across the top allows the reader to move in and out of the site’s eleven major sections. Moving down the page, several of the sections are highlighted again with headlines and some photos and video. By clicking on the navigation bar, the reader can see what the content of each section is, making getting around the online paper easy. The crisp and attractive lay-out carries over to each section. The reader is never lost and rarely confused. Several sections have “online only” features to keep the visitor on the site. It is odd that this approach is not used more broadly. One of the mistakes the editors make is that most of the multimedia content is placed in its own section instead of being integrated into each of the individual parts of the website where they belong. Given how well AJC.com is put together, that is a minor point. Grade A-
17. The Minneapolis Star Tribune (Average daily paid circulation: 321,984) (Compete online audience: 1,326,843) Startribune.com is unusually simple, which is a strength. The homepage does not give the reader much in terms of the editor’s priorities. The section on politics is featured high on the page, an assumption that visitors find the subject important, which they probably do. One of the most intelligent things that the editors have done is to make this a site primarily about local news. National and international stories from news services are available almost everywhere else online. What is going on in Minneapolis is not. The inside pages keep the simple lay-out of the main page. Startribune.com has a solid community site for reader participation and sharing posts, photos, and conversation. This kind of social networking feature should be a bigger part of all online papers. It gives readers another important reason for return visits. Within some of the sections there is a subset of the paper called vita.mn. It is meant to be an entertainment guide and calendar, but it is too complex and unwieldy. The site makes a mistake that several others do by separating multimedia into its own section instead of integrating these features next to the matching content where they can enhance the written content. Grade: B-
18. The St. Petersburg Times (Average daily paid circulation: 316,007) (Compete online audience: 434,042). The ratio of online visitors to paid subscribers for the St. Petersburg site, called Tampabay.com, is remarkably low. That is a shame, because the website is well laid-out and set-up to pull the reader into its various sections. The major drawback of the homepage is that it does not have enough news content and local content is not played up well. Once the reader gets to the local news section, it is well organized to allow the reader to pursue his interests instead of wading through several more pages to find them. Longer features are run down the right hand of the page. Videos and photos are related to the content and are also very visible and easy to use. The entertainment section uses podcasts to bring readers more information. Most online papers don’t feature this audio format as much as they could to give readers extra content. The editors are smart to keep the same basic lay-out from section to section instead of confusing the readers with a new navigation scheme as they move from place to place on the site. The “blog” section is set up so that the reader can immediately see what each blog covers. Each blog has its own RSS feed, a way to give the reader a steady stream of content to his PC. Tampabay.com would actually benefit from doing this more with other sections of the website. Grade B+
19. The Chicago Sun Times (Average daily paid circulation: 321,274) (Compete online audience: 1,454,791) Suntimes.com has a remarkably simple lay-out and it plays to its strength, local news, from the top to the bottom of the homepage. National and world news are moved off to the right, well down the page. The metro section is as complete as any 24/7 reviewed. Readers who want to know what the Chicago area news is can find virtually all of it on one place. The sports section has a very large number of blogs. This allows the reader to get “inside” writing on most of the area teams and is a clever way to keep readers returning to the section. The blog content is also used in simple and well-designed business and entertainment sections. “Video” has its own section, which segregates it from related content, a common mistake in using multimedia at newspaper websites. Grade: B
20. The Detroit Free Press (Average daily paid circulation: 308,994) (Compete online audience: 941,309) Freep.com, as this site is called is a very good example of how a daily can take its print content and enhance and add to it online. At the top of the paper’s homepage, the reader has a chance to become a “member” that allows him to blog, comment, and share photos. The opportunity to interact with the paper and other readers is front and center. At the top of the page, the visitor can click tabs for headlines, columns, staff blogs, and a section called “My Freep”, another way to allow the reader to feel part of the news and opinion community. Further down the page, the site highlights its sections with several headlines from each. Local news leads the list. The simplicity and ease of use moves into the sections. Local news is divided by region, probably on the intelligent assumption that readers would like to know what goes on near where they live. “Special reports” run down the right hand side to offer the reader more related content. Not surprisingly, the auto and business section is well done. The special features are well presented and are designed to keep readers online. In some of the sections like “entertainment” the design gets a little sloppy. The sites could use a bit more multimedia content, but overall Freep.com is very well done. Grade: A-
21. The Oregonian (Average daily paid circulation: 304,399) (Compete online audience: 792,478) Known as OregonLive.com, this online paper has one of the best homepages in the survey. Almost anything the reader would like to find in the paper is in an index which makes up the first page of the website. Articles are arranged by section. It is a remarkable example of what a good designer can do to help readers. In many of the inside sections, this design is lost as stories run one after another in blogging format without editorial priority. The editors have undercut their largest advantage with the reader. The sports section is unusually confusing. It tries to cover too much in too little space. Each major column does have its own RSS feed to push the content to the reader’s PC. Multimedia and video use are very modest. Grade: C
22. The San Diego Union-Tribune (Average daily paid circulation: 288,669.) (Compete online audience: 884,900) Signonsandiego.com editor’s have created an excellent home page. Sections run down the center with major headlines by category. The design is sharp and photos and video are integrated directly into the matching content. At the bottom of the page is a text map of the entire site. For those who do not want to look at the site, the print paper is available in PDF format, something all online paper sites should do. Some of the strong design is lost in the sections. Business headlines are run based on time stamp instead of being set up so that the reader knows what the editors think is important. The sports section is well designed and makes good use of photos and video. Features to get the reader involved are few and far between. Grade: B-
23. The Sacramento Bee (Average daily paid circulation: 268,755) Compete online audience: 606,037) Sacbee.com is a very poor attempt to get and keep an online audience. The amount of news on the homepage is extremely modest. That is followed by unrelated videos and blogs. Local news is not organized in any way, leaving the reader to fend for himself. The very small amount of available content carries over to almost all of the sections. The use of interactive features and multimedia tools to get and hold the reader is limited and poorly done. The site does show headlines for the last several days, which is useful. This may be the worst attempt to create an online version of a newspaper that 24/7 found. Grade D-
One former newspaper publisher wrote “A review of the main web pages from a dozen of the largest newspapers leaves one’s eyes glazed. They share a common flaw: too much packed into too little space, and few signposts for how to get through it.” The very best online sites avoided that.
Douglas A. McIntyre