Lots of people understand that the traditional business model around news is breaking down. Far fewer realise it’s not just the business part – advertising – that’s broken. It’s also news itself.

Why is this so hard to understand?

A planet full of people is going from a daily diet of a newspaper and a couple of news broadcasts to constant access to almost everything there is to know. Inevitably, this is causing people today to want and expect different things from their time spent on content than people did 20 or 50 years ago.

But what we produce as news has hardly changed.

I’ve been banging the drum for content change for 10 years now, since the beginning of the now long-dead Newspaper Next project in 2005. It has often seemed like a lonely mission. The hardest thing to change in the deeply disrupted newspaper industry has been the definition of news.

But some new developments give me a little fresh hope:

  • A paper released a few weeks ago by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy that points out an ugly truth: Our news Web sites get far too little traffic to generate much revenue.

  • An extensive new study of how Millennials consume news.

  • The development of a new, low-cost measurement solution newspapers can use to understand what content wins greater engagement and what doesn’t.

It’s a trifecta: 1) Evidence that what we’re doing isn’t working, 2) a look at what does work for the first natively digital generation, and 3) a tool to help us make results-based adjustments in the kinds of content we produce.

Let’s take them in that order.

Stickier news

The 38-page paper by Shorenstein fellow Matthew Hindman has a whopper of a title: “Stickier News – What Newspapers Don’t Know about Web Traffic Has Hurt Them Badly – But There is a Better Way.”

The Nieman Lab did a pretty good job of extracting many of the key points. For me, here are the most telling blows:

  • Only .5% of Web traffic goes to local news.

  • Newspaper sites get only about half of it, or .25% of Web traffic.

  • Local news sites get an average of only about five minutes a month from their visitors.

Hindman summarises it bluntly: “Local newspaper traffic is just a rounding error on the larger Web.”

At Morris, we learned this hard truth about three years ago, using Hitwise data to see what sites were getting the most visits from people living in our newspaper markets.

The bad news: Our sites typically got about .15% to .3% of the visits local people made to all Web sites. Meanwhile, the Web giants were getting 25 to 30 times as many visits from our own local audiences.

I’ve blogged about this several times since then, as I did here. (Especially see the pie chart.)

With numbers like these, it’s no wonder Google and Facebook can make good money on Web advertising and we can’t.

As Hindman puts it: “The greater efficiency of big online players has led to their total domination of the online ad marketplace. The five largest Web firms earn 64% of all online ad spending. The top 50 get 90%. There is nothing newspapers can do to change this: it is simply the way the math works.”

He goes on at great length with suggestions on how to gain more traffic. He hits on many salient points, such as the need for faster load times, better site design and layout, and more personalisation. All true.

Strangely, though, he has little to say about the content itself, except that there should be more of it, updated more often, and with better headlines.

To win bigger audiences, the content itself desperately needs to be different.

How Millennials get news

That brings us to the study recently released by the Media Insight Project, a joint effort of the American Press Institute (API) and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

I’ve already blogged on this powerful piece of research. But the point I want to make now is not how different they are from the rest of us, but how similar.

The Millennials, currently ages 18 to 35, will pass Baby Boomers this year to become the largest generation. In the chart below, the report shows they have a lot of news interests in common with the rest of us.

But if you spend time on this chart, you’ll see that what ranks highest is content that has personal relevance to them. These categories far outrank the traditional news categories (other than sports, which is a highly personal category anyway).

Being creatures of the new digital information era, they are doing exactly what you would expect. They are using their unlimited access to find content that’s personally relevant.

I would argue that all of us who regularly use the Internet – regardless of our ages – are doing exactly the same. We may have a little higher interest in the traditional categories than Millennials, but we, too, are navigating more and more to what’s personally relevant to us as individuals.

And that has huge implications for news. If we want to maximise the time, attention, and social reach of the content we produce, we simply must rethink it from the standpoint of personal relevance.

We need to write some types of traditional news from that standpoint. And we need to add new subjects and categories that resonate on the personal level, even if they haven’t historically been considered “news.” I blogged on seven categories of this “new news” here.

So the importance of the Media Insight Project study isn’t limited to Millennials – it can help us see how all the news we produce needs to change.

And that brings us to the third leg of the trifecta.

Metrics for news software

If we hope to produce more engaging content, we need better metrics to show us what’s working and what’s not. Here comes API again, with what appears to be a tremendously powerful tool to provide the metrics we need.

They call it Metrics for News – a software solution to monitor usage of news sites. It’s described here.

It provides measurements to show what types of content produce higher levels of user engagement, based on a hybrid of views, reading time, social sharing, social entries, and commenting.

Based on these metrics, it becomes possible to tell why people read the content they do and why people share content. And the cost of the tool is insignificant compared to most other Web site analytics products.

In a demo this week, API’s executive director Tom Rosenstiel said the company has installed the solution at 40 newspapers and analysed the performance of more than 100,000 articles, representing 2.7 million hours of online reading time.

On that basis, API is able to draw some very convincing conclusions about what produces higher levels of engagement.

The answers vary in different categories of news, with different variables (one of which is personal relevance) generating different amounts of lift.

Some lifts go into the +40% range – even +81% – depending on the category and the variable. These clear, numerical measures point out very clear directions for increasing audience and engagement.

At Morris, we’re moving quickly to install Metrics for News in two of our markets, followed soon by the rest of them. API would be happy to demo this powerful solution for other companies, too.

Here’s my fervent hope: That when we can see clearly what produces engagement, it will help our newsrooms rethink coverage. And as we rethink coverage, we’ll produce content that people will enjoy more, share more often and return more often to see.

Will this fix our ailing business model? Not by itself, surely, and not overnight. But it can’t help but move us in the right direction.