What do users do with news content? And how do they get their news? These are questions that a recent in-depth study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism sought to answer. The study examined the top 25 news websites in popularity in the United States, and what they found may help us restructure the way we publish news.

Who Consumes the News?

The study found that there isn’t just one primary group of news readers. Instead, there are many different groups with varying behaviors. Here’s how the study segmented them:

  • Casual Users: people who visit just a few times per month and spend only a few minutes at a site over that time span
  • Power Users: people who return more than 10 times per month to a given site and spend more than an hour there over that time

The majority of visitors are extremely casual users, visiting only once or twice per month. Only six of the top news sites claimed power users in double digits (representing 10% or more of their audience). At none of the top news sites did the number of power users reach 20%.


How Do Users Find News?

It’s no surprise that many users find news through news aggregators and search engines. The study found that only three sites ever account for more than 10% of the traffic to any one site. They include Google, The Drudge Report and Yahoo.

Other referral sites tend to account for less than 3%. In all, then, the referral sites make up 35% to 40% of a news site’s traffic. The remaining 60% of traffic to the top news sites comes as the result of three main behaviors the researchers found:

  • Going to a news site directly
  • Being referred to one page on a news site from a different page on that same domain (known as a self-referral)
  • Being sent to a site via hundreds of different sites (these sites send between one and four individuals to a site over the course of a month and thus are not named specifically)

What Do Users Do with the News?

The study identified how long users spend reading the news. A majority, between 30% and 40% of the audience, spends fairly little time on a site -- less than five minutes. The percentage of users who spends between six and 10 minutes per month then drops to about half that (between 15% and 20%). And it falls even further (between 1% and 5%) for users who spend 41 to 60 minutes. But for those who spend more than one hour per month, the percentage increases to about 10%.


This indicates that many sites may have a small core group on power users, who remain loyal to a particular news site. The real challenge is developing a strategy that works to increase the loyalty of casual visitors, while convincing power users perhaps to pay for content.

Where to Go From Here?

For users, there are three main behaviors that the report identified that drive users away from a news website.

  • a sub domain within the family of properties owned by the website’s parent company
  • a sharing site such as Facebook or Addthis
  • Google, the service provider (not the search engine) -- in this case, users are being lured way by Google tools, like a map attached to a piece of content or screener questions often attached to email sign-up pages

For advertisers, the outcome is not positive. According to the study,

Not a single consumer product site appears in the mix of destination pages for these news sites. That means that in no case did five people click on the same ad on a news site in the months studied."

This may not be surprising, but it does strike a significant blow to advertisers and web publishers, who often rely on advertisers for revenue.

Publishers who pepper their sites with sharing links may be on to something. The report shows that Facebook shows up among the top destinations for every site studied, as do sharing tool widgets such as Addthis.com, which allow users to share a story across a wide range of social network pages. As well, share tools rank higher among the content producers on the list than aggregators, suggesting that users are more likely to share actual news stories more than search results.


The study provided valuable data for most everyone involved in the design, publishing and consumption of news content. Here are just a few that we found interesting and relevant:

  • The home page still matters: For 21 of the 25 sites studied, the home page is the most viewed part of the site.
  • Twitter doesn’t drive traffic: Of the top 21 sites for which there were data, Twitter showed up as referring links to just nine. And for all but one of those nine, Twitter sent only about 1% of total traffic.
  • Facebook Puts the News in Newsfeed: In 2010, all but one of the top sites for which there was referral data derived at least some of their audience through Facebook.

Assuming that your company is not among the top 25 news sites that the Pew Research Center included in its report, what does this mean? It shows a lot of information about what influences users. It also provides a few benchmarks for segmenting your audience. Who are your casual users and what do they do on your site? By identifying casual versus power users, organizations can start to segment user behaviors as they relate to traffic, social media and advertising. Once identified, businesses can start to experiment with their marketing strategies to see how they can begin to cultivate loyalty and valuable transactions.