Internet cannibalism grows

The shift from reading newspapers to surfing the net appears to be speeding up. A study of declining circulation figures and the statistics that show the increasing use of newspaper websites suggests that the switch from print to screen is happening more swiftly than web missionaries might have predicted.

People of all ages are becoming used to obtaining not only breaking news through their computers but also analysis of, and comment on, the day’s main stories. Look at the recent figures, audited by ABC Electronic, for just five sites, recording ”unique users” (UU) and ”page impressions” (PI).

The Guardian heads the unique user list with 9,55-million in September. But its 96,4-million page impressions were a little less than the downmarket The Sun‘s 112,6-million by 3,9-million users in April.

To put those in context, the latest figures for the other three titles were: Financial Times: PI, 58,2-million and UU, 3,5-million; the Times: PI, 19,7-million and UU, 1,7-million; Telegraph: PI, 30,5-million and UU, 3,2-million.

Most observers believe that unique users are a more reliable way of evaluating web traffic as they indicate the number of individual readers. ”Page impressions” describes the total number of pages visited by users.

These statistics indicate a marked increase in the numbers of users over the past two years and the growth shows that we are only in the foothills of the revolution. In the near future it is possible to imagine a potentially dire situation for printed newspapers in which their sales fall, yet their websites are hugely popular.

Unable to carry the financial burden of publishing print editions, would newspaper owners go on providing a free service for internet readers? Several papers charge people for using their archives, but most provide current news free.

At what point do publishers decide that it is commercial suicide to carry on giving away their product? The Sun is worried about this phenomenon — known as ”cannibalisation” — and is also alarmed at falling sales. Its owners, News International, carried out a survey earlier this year, which suggested that 93 000 readers could ”potentially” stop buying the paper.

Soon after the results of that survey there were reports that The Sun had decided to scale back on its online service, including the removal of its popular Page 3 showing a picture of a topless young woman.

This was denied, but there has been a subtle change recently: instead of repeating its exclusive stories in full on its website, it now gives only a couple of paragraphs as a teaser, telling people that if they want more they must buy the paper.

Pete Picton, The Sun‘s online editor, believes the balance between what appears in print and online requires investigation. He told the Association of Online Publishers’ annual conference: ”The question of cannibalisation is worthy of a whole separate debate in our industry.”

Indeed, it should be the central debate. It’s all very well to talk about how a website enhances a paper’s brand, but what happens when the brand itself is threatened?

Just as worrying is the fact that many people get their news from net sources unconnected to newspapers. There are hosts of sites offering news of varying quality and integrity.

The other interesting development is the effect on journalists. Five years ago, many would-be reporters saw the Web as a way of getting into ”proper” papers. Now many are delighted to show that they can make waves with instantaneous reporting.

Web journalism is a challenge to newspapers and an opportunity, but getting the balance right is so crucial that there will be much more of this story to tell in the future. — Â

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