Time-spent on newspaper sites: not predictable from rated quality

Much buzz last week about the release, via E&P, of Nielsen’s May time-spent ratings of the top US 30 newspaper sites, and the fact that 17 of them — more than half — showed a decline from year-earlier levels.

Now, any statistician will tell you not to read too much into one month’s data. It’s like drawing conclusions from one day’s fluctuation in the stock market. I’d bet the ratings were up, big time, in November and January on Presidential election and inauguration news. In May 2008, among other things, there was a lot of attention being paid to the final primaries and pre-convention maneuvering in the Presidential race — far more interesting news than we had last month. Clearly, that explains why time spent at Politico dropped about 4 minutes from last year’s 10 minutes, 21 seconds. Barack Obama clinched the nomination on June 3, 2008; Hillary Clinton threw in the towel on June 7 — so when the June 2009 ratings come out, we could see another lackluster month, unless traffic is boosted by events in Iran.

On the other hand, when any site is seeing a consistent drop in reader engagement, year-over-year, that’s an issue, and that seems to be the case with some of these papers, although the data we have is spotty. It would be nice if E&P’s Jen Saba would dip into the Nielsen data for us and draw a graph of the times-spent measured at these sites monthly during the past year — she has previously published reports only on January, March and last September (now behind the pay wall).

Also puzzling: in some cases, while time spent is plummeting, unique-visitor counts are soaring. For example, the May data has time spent at NJ.com, the Star Ledger’s site, dropping from 8 minutes and 25 seconds to 2 minutes and 28 seconds. Meanwhile, however, according to compete.com, uniques at NJ.com have soared from 1.2 million in May 2008 to 2.7 million last month, with site visits zooming during that period from 4.2 million to 7.5 million. Both UVs and visits show a pretty consistent uptrend especially since November.

What’s going on there? Back in August, the site underwent a redesign promising “to make its wealth of in-depth content easier to find and use.” Perhaps, too, there has been more local promotion of the site. But all those extra eyeballs are obviously not sticking around very long. And when investor-oriented 24/7 Wall Street rated the top US newspaper sites last week, it singled out NJ.com as deserving an F rating, with this description:

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.