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Saturday, January 27, 2007

OT: The Webroglio At The Times

I think I'm about the only person who reads the Times' Opinion LA blog. Despite having inhaled former Reasonoids Matt Welch and Tim Cavanaugh, old hands at the online writing business, word from the inside is that that LA's main paper ain't cuttin' it, and editor Jim O'Shea ripped on latimes.com with great vengeance and furious anger, or something like that. Since I smell a sense of panic here, it's worth going over these a little bit:
Latimes.com was established in April 1996. Its stated strategy is to be an indispensable “information retailer” for Southern California, providing news, listings, reviews, databases and the thousands of other tidbits people need to navigate their lives.

This vision is unfulfilled. The website’s own research demonstrates that latimes.com is virtually invisible in greater Los Angeles. By some measures, the site is losing traction even faster than the newspaper. Latimes.com reports that traffic is growing and has reached 5.1 million unique visitors and 73 million total page views per month. But ComScore Media Metrix, an independent traffic monitor that uses an array of indicators, says overall traffic to the site dropped 9% in September, compared with the same month a year earlier. Visits to nytimes.com were up 10%, at Yahoo News 15%, at AOL News 11%. Overall, traffic to news sites grew an average of 4%, according to ComScore.

Latimes.com has slipped from the list of 500 most-visited websites in the world to 766th and does not make the U.S. top 100, according to Alexa Internet. By contrast, nytimes.com is ranked 95th in the world (21st in the U.S.), and washingtonpost.com is 264th (54th in the U.S.). Even in Southern California, the reach of latimes.com is dwarfed by that of sites such as MSNBC, Yahoo News and the New York Times. A 2005 study by outside consultants concluded that few in Southern California consider latimes.com a source of news or entertainment.

The keys to unraveling this is to immediately note that latimes.com
  1. has much less traffic than its competitors
  2. is reporting about a drop in traffic reported by Media Metrix and Alexa Internet despite their own numbers showing an increase during the same period.
First off, forget Alexa. Their numbers are the proverbial one-eyed-man sort; who the hell runs an Alexa toolbar for the purposes of allowing them to snoop on their web travels? I know I don't. Alexa represents a self-selecting group that's far from a reliable scientific sampling, so citing these numbers as even remotely credible tells me O'Shea is in over his head. (It also makes me wonder whether the "outside consultants" were doing anything besides cashing a paycheck.)

Furthermore, the discrepancy between latimes.com traffic numbers and those from Media Metrix — not just a discrepancy in value but in direction — leads me to suspect something that hit my day job about six years ago when we, too, started hyperventilating about the numbers being reported by Nielsen Netratings. As I found out then, the dirty little secret of the online traffic measuring business is that error bands are generally much worse because the Net is so fragmented to begin with. The coup de grâce comes when you try to measure traffic for a small(ish) website: suddenly you're looking at a random number generator. Worse, error bands are almost never reported unless with great screaming and kicking from the rating agencies, whose word is supposed to be both authoritative and impartial. It's hard to imagine that the situation has improved appreciably over the intervening years; sampling costs money. For latimes.com, it reminds you of Groucho Marx's quip "who are you going to believe? Me, or your own eyes?" There are other, better ways to get solid, impartial traffic data for the purposes of selling advertising, and latimes.com should be investigating them.

The article goes on to describe the internecine war that Tribune Corp. has set up between Spring Street and the honchos in Chicago, a conflict that has led to the understaffing of latimes.com, which in turn seems to be taking most of the blame for how poorly the site has fared of late. Some of this is no doubt true; the Times wish to improve web services without additional manpower seems doomed to fail, though, given the sprawling nature of the site. The proposal to reintroduce calendarlive.com as a paid site amounts to a timid step in the direction of charging for content. Given that newspapers used to live or die on their classifieds, Craigslist has utterly kicked the wheels out of that revenue stream, and probably will for the forseeable future, too.

As a result, it's fairly clear that the Times will ultimately need to charge for latimes.com, however divisive that turns out to be; the question is, can they sustain the kind of reporting they currently have even with an online subscription base? Unprivy to the balance sheet, it is a question I cannot answer. Nonetheless, I offer up the following obvious suggestion: $110 a year for latimes.com, $137.80 for the print edition (with free access to the online version), leave the opinion section free, and close the rest of the site off.

(You can read more reactions to the latest fusillade by following the links in this summary post.)


Comments:
Did you see this article the other day? http://news.yahoo.com/s/ep/20070125/en_bpiep/lateditorwebwillbeprimaryvehiclefornewsdelivery
 
Yes, I did.
 
i have no complaints of the latimes.com as is. the Sports page is my #1 must read every day and living out-of-state, the internet is how i read it. i've been reading that paper in hard copy format since i could read, in fact i probably learned to read from it.

so it's near and dear to my heart. all that said, i wouldn't pay to read it i'm afraid. i'd just go to the OC Register as long as it remained free.
 

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