Ever heard of RSS?
The acronym stands for Really Simple Syndication, a tool for aggregating Web news sites and updates by reader preference, and it's quickly growing in popularity on sites offered by the nation's top newspapers.
The San Diego Union-Tribune's Web site, SignOnSanDiego.com, has it, and is among 97 percent of the 100 most widely circulated papers in the country that do. In 2006, 76 percent had RSS, according to a midsummer study by The Bivings Group, a Washington, D.C., public affairs and Web program developer.
Instead of another in a series of death knell reports detailing newspapers' circulation and advertising losses, The Bivings Group's study "American Newspapers and the Internet: Threat or Opportunity?" shows that papers are embracing new Web tools to attract more visitors.
"The use of online tools, such as video, podcasts (audio renditions of articles) and blogs, supplement the information readers can obtain in a printed newspaper and helps publications evolve away from the online repository format , where newspaper Web sites provide regurgitated story content from print editions , and move toward a more full-featured model of news," the study stated.
Increased Web traffic, in turn, has the ability to fatten a company's bottom line through increased advertising.
With the use of charts and graphs, the 35-page study shows that the array of tools and offerings gaining increased usage among the 100 most widely circulated newspapers in the country also includes RSS, comments on articles, a list of most popular or widely read stories, social networking capabilities, and "user-generated content" such as photos and even articles.
Web Bells And Whistles
Compared with such national publications as USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, whose daily circulation exceeds the 1 million mark, The San Diego Union-Tribune, a regional paper with a weekday circulation of 296,331, is no slouch when it comes to providing bells and whistles on its Web site. Nor is the North County Times, a midsized paper with a weekday circulation of 91,212. Its Web site is nctimes.com. (The circulation figures were compiled in a six-month report released in the spring by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.)
As for RSS, Chris Jennewein, the Union-Tribune's vice president of Internet operations, said it's important, but it's not as popular as SignOnSanDiego's mobile distribution feature, which allows cell phone users to access the site.
"We just started that in May, so it's still brand new, but from the feedback we've gotten people like the traffic (reports)," he said.
Video is one of the most popular offerings on SignOnSanDiego, Jennewein said.
"I think that local newspapers will be producing as much video as local TV by 2010," he added. "First of all, newspapers' staffs are far larger and most newspapers are now training reporters to shoot short video segments.
"There's also more interest in video in the short form, whereas a decade ago people wanted 30-minute shows, they now want two-minute videos, something a print reporter can be very effective at gathering."
Peter York, who became the publisher of the North County Times this summer, agreed.
The paper emphasizes news in the northern part of the county and was one of the few in the country to see a circulation increase, albeit a small one, during the six months ending in March, according to the ABC. York said that video footage offered on the nctimes.com site fills the same niche.
"Whether it's Friday night high school football games or other local news, we'll become more like TV," he said.
You won't find all of the latest features on the local paper's Web sites. The Bivings Group study showed that a "most popular" function is offered by 51 percent of the top newspapers compared with 33 percent a year ago. But it isn't available on SignOnSanDiego, nor on nctimes.com. Neither are reporter blogs, which are available on 95 percent of the top papers, as opposed to 80 percent in 2006.
But with or without the complete array, both of the metro dailies' Web sites are seeing more traffic.
According to Nielsen//NetRatings Inc., SignOnSanDiego attracted 1.95 million unique users, meaning different individuals logging on, in July compared with 1.12 million during July 2006.
The count of unique users also put the Union-Tribune in 18th place on Editor & Publisher's list of the top 30 newspaper Web sites for July.
While SignOnSanDiego's page views and time spent were down, it may be partly due to statistical variation, Jennewein said.
"But whenever the audience goes up, time spent, which is an average, declines," he said. "But it's safe to say that over the past several years, all three measures have risen."
York said that page views for nctimes.com were up nearly 27 percent so far this year compared with the same period in 2006.
The Bivings Group's study stated that, "For the most part, newspapers' sites have succeeded in attracting visitors."
"Many major papers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post now have more daily visitors than they sell copies of the paper each day, though most of those are the same people," the study adds. But it did not measure increases in daily visitors among the top publications.
York said that online revenue as a percentage of total advertising revenue for the North County Times is more than 6 percent, up from slightly less than 4 percent.
"So that's a nice increase," he added.
Jennewein said he expects that the Union-Tribune's Internet advertising revenue would reach 9 percent of the paper's total this year, and in 2006 it amounted to about 6 percent.