AdAge revealed recently that the New York Times reported a steep 17.9% decline in ad revenues for July. Not unexpected, as many print behemoths are getting pummeled in this economy. (See related post “Is Digital Marketing Killing Magazine Ads”) However, NYTimes.com and the company’s other online efforts grew only .9% in July, compared to double digit increases throughout most of the past year.
My initial thought was along the lines of “what’s the big deal? they still grew .9% which is 10.8% annualized and that’s not bad.”
But, once I started to look more deeply at the data, I found two revealing patterns that explain the sudden stop in NYTimes.com ad growth.
Obama – the King of Web Traffic
Looking at NYTimes.com data from Google Ad Planner I found that NYTimes.com, WashingtonPost.com and other print-based portals showed significant growth in average daily visits from January through March of this year. While of course there were other national and world events during the first quarter of this year, the rise of Obama and his unexpected (to many) vigorous challenge of Hillary Clinton was a recurring and dominant news story.
NYTimes.com traffic past 12 months:
To see an even more pointed display of the Obama Effect on Web traffic, here’s the Google Insights search volume graph for “Barack Obama” for this year. Note the huge spike in searches in the first quarter.
“Barack Obama” search volume – 2008
Now that Obama has the nomination and we don’t have daily Barack v. Hillary drama, search volume has cooled (although a recent spike (convention-related?) is evident). This no doubt is a bellweather for overall public interest, and examining the more recent traffic for NYTimes.com and WashingtonPost.com demonstrates this effect. While Google doesn’t provide exact figures, I estimate a total daily audience erosion of 25% for NYTimes.com and 45% for WashingtonPost.com from Obama-mania to today.
Expecting NYTimes.com to continue growing ad revenue when traffic dips considerably is unrealistic. The bigger question is whether they can hold on to the ad revenue they have, now that the Obama effect on traffic is waning.
Blogs Are Beating Traditional Media Powers at Internet Publishing
The Obama effect is not limited only to traditional media portals. Spikes were seen for all the major political-oriented blogs (most of whose readers also read NYTimes.com, according to Google Ad Planner). Dailykos.com, Huffingtonpost.com, Thepolitico.com, Realclearpolitics.com, et al all showed spikes that looked like this:
HuffingtonPost.com traffic past 12 months:
Notice that even though HuffingtonPost.com and the rest of its blog-based brethren were helped by the Obama effect in the first quarter, their traffic today is HIGHER than it was at the beginning of the year pre-Obama.
DailyKos.com traffic past 12 months:
I interpret this as Obama mania driving significant number of Web visitors to sample sites that they may not have used much (if at all) previously, most notably the high profile, opinionated, and hyper-current political blogs. These sites have been able to hold on to substantially greater portion of their increased audience than have the traditional media portals.
To me, these findings call into question the ability for traditional portals to continue growing significantly. It appears that as media continues to fragment and consumers have more and more choices, blog-based journalism seems to resonate with a greater percentage of the population.
Obviously, traditional media portals aren’t going away. After all, NYTimes.com does have 6X the audience of the Huffington Post. However, given that it costs peanuts to produce the Huff compared to NYTimes.com, and given the traffic trends examined here, over the long-term I see the uber blogs becoming more and more dominant, provided they don’t lose their opinionated appeal as they grow.
It’s increasingly clear that consumers want a dash of opinion with their news, regardless of medium, and their journalistic credo and huge overhead is going to make it a difficult future for the newspaper-based Web sites. Ultimately, it spells a slow death for NYTimes.com and other traditional media entities.