Readers of general news sites are similar in behavior to shoppers on Amazon.com. The fact that readers tend to treat news like quick transactions is just one of the revealing insights found in a new report  from the Pew Research Center's Project For Excellence in Journalism. The data is not easily summarized, but one intuitive trend emerges: Readers are far less loyal to any one news brand than they were in the past, flitting from one site to the other and rarely staying for long.
Casual users make up the majority of traffic on many of the most popular news sites. On USAToday.com, for instance, 85% of its users came to the site just once, twice, or three times. This was a "consistent pattern" across all of the top 25 sites Pew scutinized: The majority of visitors were "extremely casual" readers, visiting just one or two times monthly. "Casual users dominated on all sites," the report authors write, "often by a margin of five to one."
Though the authors add that this requires some qualification--"users" are inferred by cookies, and the same person might actually be reflected by multiple cookies, depending on browsing habits--they still posit that "even if the number of unique visitors is inflated by a factor of two or more...these figures reveal a challenge for the news."
How do you deal with a swirling world full of jaded, fickle readers? General news sites are at a real disadvantage here, and have much to learn from specialized news sites like ESPN.com. The popular sports site has an audience on par with that of YahooNews.com or MSNB.com. "In audience behavior, however, the site is strikingly different," report the study authors. Fully 20% of ESPN.com readers come back over 10 times a month, and 26% of readers spend over an hour on the site per month. Specialized sites attract these so-called "power users" like a magnet. Compare that to a general interest site, where only 7% on average, are "power users." (The very term "power users" is symptomatic, in a way, of the state of news on the web. A decade or two ago, we had a different name for "power users"--we called them "loyal readers.")
The Pew study analyzed not just how many users visited what sites for how long, but also how they got there and how they left. In terms of inbound traffic, Google emerges as a clear winner here. About 40% of total traffic to top news sites comes from outside referrals. Google Search and News accounted for 30% of total inbound traffic, or 3/4 of the referral share.
In a kind of "no, duh" section that makes the report seem a little behind the curve, Pew reports that "Facebook Is Becoming Increasingly Important." About 6% of the Times's inbound traffic, for instance, came from Facebook, making the site "an influenctial and probably growing force."
Even if insights like these seem obvious, it's good to consult data regularly to see if your gut instincts square with reality. If you're a big user of Twitter, you might assume that Twitter is a major driver of traffic to general news sites. But Twitter actually gets an outsize amount of attention, given its actual referral patterns. For most of the top 25 general news sites, less than 1% of traffic is inbound from Twitter links. Only four outlets get over 1% of traffic from Twitter: the Times, the New York Post, and the Huffington Post. The outlier here is the L.A. Times, which gets over 3% of its inbound traffic via Twitter. This reflects, roughly, Twitter usage by city , and also fits with the LAT's strong coverage of Hollywood, a forceful presence on the microblogging site.
So what are digital newsfolk to do? The prescription is the sort of thing many successful sites have already doing: creating a family of content to build loyal readers--or power users--of those sites is one good idea. It is difficult to monetize the actions of the fickle. The best thing to do may be to try to convert them into the loyal. And to go niche.
[Image: Flickr user dungodung ]