So wrote Peter Preston in his weekly ‘Press and Broadcasting’ column for the Observer.
The piece by the former Guardian editor is an important contribution to the ongoing debate about the future of newspapers in an online world.
Why? Because he challenges a key assumption about success online – namely the importance of the willy-waving “I’ve got more unique users than you” position.
Taking figures from the United States (“because Nielsen collects them with continuous, detailed authority”), Preston looks at the amount of time American web users spend online in the company of newspaper websites.
And it’s not a pretty picture: the average visitor devotes just 38 minutes and 24 seconds a month on one, or more likely more than one, newspaper site.
And remember only one third of the US universe of users visits a newspaper site at all.
As Preston points out this means “the average New York Times print reader spends roughly as long with his paper a day as the average NYT net user spends online in a month”. For the record, that’s 29 minutes 57 seconds.
Preston argues that this lack of face time is a reflection of user mode when surfing – clicking through in pursuit of some fact or picture: “no brand or devotion: only utility”.
If these site visit times don’t strike you as too bad, consider how you would make money from them. In Preston’s words:
What price nine minutes and nine seconds over a month for average visiting time to the New York Post site Rupert Murdoch hopes to charge for? (Not much of a revenue stream at 19 seconds a day!)
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– What if the business model for news ain’t broke?