Taloussanomat: Cautionary Tale for Online-Only?

A new report offers a case study on the merits of Web migration

On December 28, 2007, after ten years of publication, the Finnish financial newspaper Taloussanomat made a move that would foreshadow one taken by many other newspapers in years to come: it went online-only. The outlet, formerly with a 72,000 daily circulation, got rid of its printing presses, reduced its staff (from sixty-nine journalists to forty-one), and, in general, got ready to reap the benefits of becoming Europe’s “first online-only newspaper.”

Neil Thurman and Merja Myllylahti, researchers at the City University of London, studied Taloussanomat’s Web traffic patterns and its general operations since the outlet made its digital migration; earlier today, they published their findings in a report, “Taking the Paper Out of News.”

And those findings—if you’ve assumed, as so many have, that shedding its print product will save an outlet money, consolidate its audience, and spur innovation—are not good. While the move’s sacrifice of display ad and subscription revenue—which made for a 75-percent loss of overall revenue—was counteracted by its reduction of its operational costs, Taloussanomat’s Web-only move brought with it a drop in…Web traffic.

Yep, you read that right. While Taloussanomat initially recorded an increase in that traffic after its Web migration, the uptick was short-lived: after only five months of online-only operation, the study found, unique visitors to the site had dropped by 22 percent—and page views by 11 percent—compared with what traffic had been when Taloussanomat offered both a Web site and a print product.

The outlet’s traffic rebounded last fall—“Visitor numbers recovered between early July and early October 2008 to show a 13 percent rise compared with the month before Taloussanomat went online-only,” Therman and Myllylahti note—but the researchers attribute those gains to reader interest in the global financial crisis…a bit of external, and therefore irreplicable, serendipity for a financial newspaper. (Taloussanomat is, as it was before the Web migration, the second-most-trafficked financial news site in Finland.)

Overall, Thurman and Myllylahti estimate, audiences now spend 75 percent less time reading Taloussanomat than they did when it was available both in print and online.

Steve Yelvington, for his part, attributes that seeming paradox to Web reading patterns: “A print experience is focused and immersive,” he notes. “On the Web, everything else is just a click away, and consumers flit about from site to site. This isn’t something we can change.” Still, though, Taloussanomat’s eyeball reduction is even more surprising considering that, between 2001 and 2006—while the paper’s daily print circulation fell from 88,000 to 72,000—its weekly Web visitors had increased. By 1,180 percent.

It should go without saying, of course, that the broad applicability of the City University study’s findings is limited by the single-outlet scope of its research. Focusing on one newspaper, though it affords an impressive—and, more to the point, instructive—depth of data, also precludes the validity of the findings’ wholesale application to other publications. Though it’s tempting to treat the lessons of Taloussanomat as a collectively cautionary tale for the Christian Science Monitor, SeattlePI.com, and the many other outlets that have gone or are moving toward going online-only, Taloussanomat is only one newspaper—and is therefore subject to idiosyncracies and the vagaries that arise from them, just like every other unique institution. As such, a grain of salt is in order when it comes to the study’s wider implications.

Which isn’t to deny the study’s value—which is, actually, immense. As I mentioned earlier this week, we currently have precious little evidence as to what works and what doesn’t when it comes to financial modeling for newspapers. The City University study, providing as it does an instructive collection of data about the experience of one particular news outlet, is something newspaper editors and publishers who are struggling with the financial implications of the print/Web dynamic—which is to say, all of them—should be aware of and take to heart.

The study also goes out of its way to put its findings in context. Therman and Myllylahti compare Taloussanomat’s traffic numbers to the Web performances of two large UK outlets that offer both print products and Web sites: The Guardian and the Times of London. Both outlets saw a rise in uniques, the report notes—the Guardian, by 32 percent, and the Times, by 60 percent—between November 2007 and August 2008. And another Finnish financial-news outlet, Kauppalehti, saw an 18 percent rise in uniques during that same period. Taloussanomat’s uniques, on the other hand, declined 0.26 percent.

Perhaps even more interestingly, the City University report’s findings also hint at the fallibility of a core assumption about what happens when newspapers shed the weight of their presses: that their newfound liberation from print will give way to innovation. But at the online-only Taloussanomat, Thurman and Myllylahti found, its remaining journalists tended to adhere to print traditions and schedules even in the absence of print itself: filing stories at 5 p.m., rather than throughout the day; adhering to print standards for story length and formatting; and generally exhibiting reluctance to file short, breaking-news stories to the Web. (They tended to view such updates, the report explains, as “incomplete.”)

Yet, somewhat paradoxically, the journalists’ desire to feed the Web with new content made them less likely than they were before the online move to go out and do reporting—and more likely to stay at their desks and rely on agency copy for that content. (In fact, the study found, 80 percent of Taloussanomat’s stories come from news agencies and other sources.) Thurman and Myllylahti also documented a greater consumer focus at the online-only Taloussanomat, with more sensational and celebrity-focused stories than the site featured when the outlet offered a print product.

And—even more damning to the Web-begets-innovation assumption—the study found that Taloussanomat journalists, despite the freedom offered by their Web-only reincarnation, didn’t innovate with multimedia tools.

The lack of innovation that the Thurman/ Myllylahti study found at Taloussanomat could have myriad causes—not all of them, necessarily, transferable to other news outlets. Crowd dynamics being what they are, there’s no way to know, for sure, what factors contributed to Taloussanomat’s apparent print-mentality-writ-Web—or, for that matter, whether those factors could prove a similar hindrance to innovation at other news outlets. Content is king, that old standby, still applies. And content depends on the journalists who create it.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.