USAToday — bad model or bad fit?

by Mathew on August 16, 2007 · 1 comment

Update:

As Allen Stern of Centernetworks notes in the comments here, and Mike Arrington notes in this follow-up post on USAToday, the paper says that its traffic not only hasn’t fallen but is actually up by double digits. Maybe we need to file this one under the heading: “better traffic data urgently needed.”

Original post:

There’s a post up at TechCrunch in which Mike Arrington raises the question of whether the USAToday’s high-profile launch of “Web 2.0”-style features — including comments on news stories, blogs, voting on stories, and so on — is paying off or not. According to the stats Mike has from Compete and comScore, traffic to the USAToday.com site has fallen over the past several months by anywhere from 14 to 29 per cent.

At first, I assumed — like some commenters — that this might be explained by a normal summer decline in readers, a lack of compelling news, etc. But as Mike points out in his graph, the Washington Post and the New York Times haven’t seen any similar decline over the same period.

usatodaycomnytimescomwashingtonpostcom_uv_310.png

Of course, all the usual caveats about traffic measurement should be inserted here — neither Compete nor comScore (nor any of the other major measurement agencies, for that matter) have what you would call 100-per-cent reliable statistics. But the fact that both of them together show a similar trend at least leads me to believe they are on the right track.

So what can we learn from all this? Mike wonders whether it’s possible that “news and social networking just don’t mix.” But I think Tish Grier — who was involved with Jay Rosen’s Assignment Zero crowd-sourcing project, among other things — gets closer to the mark with her post, in which she argues (as I have in the past) that, well… social networking is hard.

You can’t just set up shop and expect people to suddenly show up and start contributing and interacting. For one thing, as Chris Heuer argues, online community doesn’t fit with everyone and everything. There also needs to be real interaction from the newspaper side as well, and encouragement and moderation and so on. It’s like gardening, not construction. And there has to be a reason for people to want to participate, as someone notes in the comments on Mike’s post.

Much like gardening, it also takes time for the fruits of your labours to become obvious — I’m not sure we should write USAToday’s experiment off just yet. And for what it’s worth, Jason at Webomatica says that he enjoys the comments there.

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