First Monday

Trends emerging more clearly: Business models of news Web Sites by Fred Schiff

This paper is included in the First Monday Special Issue #6: Commercial applications of the Internet, published in July 2006. Special Issue editor Mark A. Fox asked authors to submit additional comments regarding their articles.

Read the original article here

Despite a decade of claims about the revolutionary rate of change in information and communications technology, the three years from June 2003 to June 2006 saw mostly incremental changes in the business models used by news websites. These changes can be summarized as follows:

  1. Advertising is the dominant revenue source, and more interactive and targeted advertising is growing.
  2. Online traffic is one measure of success and user fees are becoming increasingly important for news websites, especially those that offer unique, exclusive, premium or business-related content. Most news content providers and aggregators are probably going to have to wait for a micro-payment, fee-based model.
  3. Infant industry profits remain relatively modest even as stock market values are returning to higher multiples.
  4. Digital convergent content delivery is a primary product that draws advertising, but revenue to news content providers may depend on the intermediary mix and bundling of service layers. A major phase change has occurred as broadband access dropped to an affordable price point.
  5. Continuous breaking news operates more in mid-day, mid-week, work environments but has not yet given online news outlets a niche advantage at home.
  6. Information retrieval and storage (one form of aggregation) continue to pull in news seeking audiences. The audience seems divided between a segment who want comparative headlines and useful information bits and a segment who want in-depth data documents and in-context reports.
  7. Portal conduits (another form of aggregation) successfully draw audiences. Competition is taking place over their potential to steer consumers to points of view and products.
  8. Interactive networking offers perhaps the most potential for consolidating and mobilizing news audiences, but so far it is the least explored and fastest growing unique medium feature.

I will now discuss each of these changes in more detail:

1. Advertising is the dominant revenue source, and more interactive and targeted advertising is growing.

Increasingly, executives and reporters foretell of the online news industry moving to an advertising-based revenue model (Brown, 2003; Schroeder, 2003). Studies found that 89 percent of news websites contain advertising ( Greer, 2004), and 75 percent of revenue to newspaper websites comes from classified advertising (more than double the 36 percent for hardcopy editions) (Brown, 2003; Newspaper Association of America, 2006). So far, however, online ads generated only a modest share of total newspaper advertising revenue (between 1 percent and 7 percent) for 10 publicly traded companies based on 2001-2004 annual reports (, 2006). A typical news homepage has five ads that take up about 10 percent of the front page (Greer and Mensing, 2004). In 2005, online newspaper websites took in $2.03 billion in revenues, which was a 31.5 percent increase and represented 4.1 percent of total newspaper advertising revenue (compared to 3.3 percent in 2004) ( Newspaper Association of America, 2006). Overall, slightly more revenue comes from consumers directly than from advertising for general-purpose sites (Bruner, 2005, p. 14). At present, advertising is still the dominate source of revenue to online news sites (Brown, 2003; Greer, 2004).

By 2004, a Morgan Stanley report put online ad spending at $145 per U.S. household with Internet access compared to $674 per newspaper home (Robertson, 2005-2006). After the dotcom bust and the drop in ad revenue from 2000 to 2002, traditional national brand advertisers replaced Information and Communications Technology (ICT) companies as the biggest spenders (Bruner, 2005; Greer, 2004). Print and broadcast sites are equally likely to get national advertisers (Greer, 2004). The largest single ad site by far is Yahoo! with 12 percent of all U.S. page views in February 2005 (Bruner, 2005, p. 17). By 2005, online advertising amounted to approximately $12.9 billion or 4.6 percent of total media spending (Foege, 2006). (The online share of advertising more or less doubled from about $6.4 billion and 2.5 percent of total media spending in 2003. See: Mangalindan, 2003; Newspaper Association of America, 2006).

The clutter of banner advertising has given way to more effective “rich” techniques like flash, animated interstitials and interactive product-related video games, especially on national brand websites (Bruner, 2005; Mangalindan, 2003; Schroeder, 2003). In 2004, search ads captured 40 percent of total online ad spending, followed by display ads (20 percent), and classified ads (17 percent) (Bruner, 2005, p. 12). Direct marketing e-mail ads (2 percent) seem to have lost out to more effective anti-spam filters, pop-up blockers and browser limits (Bruner, 2005, p. 12). Even so, spam constituted more than 69 percent of all e-mail in late 2004. Pay-for-rank on keyword search engines and search-related advertising displays, produce traceable click-through paths used, for example, in the Home Depot Inc. ad campaign (Mangalindan, 2003). The stand-alone, purely online classified websites have run into competition from classified websites sponsored by newspapers (Cohen and Kaczorowski, 2004; Liebau, 2005) and to a lesser extent from television news consortia. As many news sites now require registration, companies are aggregating personal electronic information, so customized IP-address-specific advertising cannot be far behind.

2. Online traffic/subscription or fee revenues

Online traffic is one measure of website success and user fees are becoming increasingly important for news websites, especially those that offer unique, exclusive, premium or business-related content (Brown, 2003; Goldsborough, 2002; Robertson, 2005-2006; Totty, 2004). Most news content providers and aggregators are probably going to have to wait for a micro-payment, fee-based model.

The big news event during recent years–the second invasion of Iraq–saw a jump in the daytime traffic to leading news websites but did not establish Internet news as the primary “go-to” source for news as happened to cable-cast CNN with the first Gulf war (Kirkpatrick, 2003b; Pesola, 2003). Nevertheless, double-digit increases continue year-over-year in the number of unique visitors and page views to news websites (Robertson, 2005-2006; Horrigan, 2006a).

In December 2005, for persons who reported where they got their news, the proportion going to Internet news sites jumped to 43 percent of all broadband users, compared to 26 percent of dail-up users (Horrigan, 2006a). For broadband users at home, local newspaper websites collectively attracted 41 percent of users; national television (broadcast and cable) and radio each attracted around 50 percent; and local TV got 65 percent (Horrigan, 2006b). From data available for December 2005, all newspaper websites combined (i.e., at home and at work) had 52 billion unique visits and 2.35 trillion page views (up 21 percent and 43 percent, respectively, since January) (Nielsen/NetRatings, 2006a). The average person spent 40 minutes per session (which is more time than with hard copy newspapers), had 8 visits per month and saw 45 pages (Nielsen/NetRatings, 2006a). Newspapers operate 11 of the top 25 online news and information websites (Liebau, 2005).

Translating traffic into revenue is a key issue for news websites (Schroeder, 2003). The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) says that at least 44 newspapers charge for content (Robertson, 2005-2006). in an isolated, monopoly-print market in Spokane (Wash.) had a net gain in online circulation a year after it started charging (Brown, 2003; Robertson, 2005-2006). Online circulation also rebounded at the Albuquerque Journal after it moved to online payment. Mainly, the paper needed to cut the “cannibalization” cost of losing 2 to 3 percent of paying hardcopy subscribers every year to the free online edition (Brown, 2003). Papers in small markets with fewer alternatives may face less risk in charging for online subscriptions (Brown, 2003).

For most online publishers, however, the subscription model has met with consumer resistance (Totty, 2004). Chyi (2005) found that no subscription model was acceptable in a telephone survey of Hong Kong users. “Information is free” remains the prevailing Internet consumer ethos even if Picard (2000, p. 65) declared the “free web” model to be one of the four business models that has already failed. Yet more than a decade later, the majority of news sites are still free. In addition, not-for-profit news sites are proliferating (see point 6, below).

By and large, online news content providers have only been able to charge for differentiated, exclusive or premium content (Brown, 2003; Goldsborough, 2002; Robertson, 2005-2006; Totty, 2004). The Wall Street Journal (, for instance, created a premium trade magazine aimed at health industry professionals (Brown, 2003).

In lieu of fees, more than 100 U.S. dailies require online registration. Online registration and hardcopy subscriptions generate databases that can be sold and mined. Still, registration is a consolation prize for news websites. Even for websites with unique content like and, less than 5 percent of registered users become subscribers (Totty, 2004). Free trials, samples and discount price tiers add to the costs of online acquisition and turnover (Totty, 2004).

At the same time, non-news organizations are producing and syndicating competing content. There are lots of new and varied digital information retailers – from’s infomercial interviews with 170 mid-cap CEOs in 15 industries (Machie, 2004) to AT&T’s online news channel focusing on Internet security issues (Searcey, 2005) to’s real-time, customized PDA alerts ((Business Wire, 2006).

3. Infant industry profits remain relatively modest even as stock market values are returning to high multiples

There’s a business plan below the bottom line. The cash flow and profit margins from daily newspapers and broadcast television stations in metropolitan markets are among the highest of any U.S. manufacturing sector (Cohen and Kaczorowski, 2004). Publishing, including online publication, is usually considered to be a production activity rather than part of the financial services sector. And yet, “[t]he entire industry is, in effect, cashing out,” according to David Carlson (Nieman Reports, 2005, p.71), who cites Philip Meyers, The Vanishing Newspaper. “[P]erhaps unknowingly the industry is committing suicide.” Or, perhaps venture capital is consciously killing it.

Knight Ridder, the second largest newspaper chain, was forced to sell off its assets by Private Capital Management, headquartered in Naples, Fla., a 19 percent shareholder (Liebau, 2005; Jordan and Sloan, 2006). Undervalued newspaper properties are increasingly vulnerable to predatory takeovers, especially since for Knight Ridder the breakup price was worth more than its market capitalization. According to Allan Sloan (Washington Post, 2005), the senior executives of Private Capital Management stand to gain $300 million in performance payments from its owner Legg Mason if they make revenue targets for the parent company, regardless of how well they perform for the rest of the portfolio holders with $60 billion in assets (Sloan, 2005). In 2003, the Blackstone Group and Providence Equity took a 40 percent stake in Freedom Communications to buy out the Hoiles family (Liebau, 2005). Because of depressed newspaper stock prices, a buy-sell transaction premium can yield a better, quicker return than long-term appreciation or profit-producing dividends. Legacy media corporations (Dorroh, 2005) and venture capitalists (Sloan, 2005) as well as corporations with record high cash reserves and capital exporting elites from authoritarian client regimes are taking accumulated value from mature industries and merging with, acquiring and investing in online ventures even at inflated prices (Economist, 2005; Kirkpatrick, 2003a).

Most analysts foresee a tipping point when online news revenue exceeds traditional news media revenue (Riley, 2006). In recent years, more and more news websites are reporting profits (Brown, 2003; Runett, 2001). But, as far back as 2000, “[s]lightly more than half of the daily newspapers ... booked a modest online profit,” according to an NAA survey (Runett, 2001, p. 1). Borrell Associates, Inc., surveyed 246 newspapers in 2002 to find that half to two-thirds of the online news sites were profitable, including the Tribune Co., Knight Ridder, Scripps Howard and Morris Communications (Brown, 2003). As retained corporate earnings ballooned during the period, so did Internet stock valuations (Economist, 2005). In 2005, Microsoft supposedly considered a $20 billion stake in AOL worth $1,000 per subscriber (Economist, 2005), which is on a par with newspaper valuations. The difference is that newspapers in print-monopoly circulation areas typically throw off 20-plus percent in Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization (EBITDA). CNET Networks, the 13th largest website, saw a 50 percent appreciation on rumors of acquisition (comScore Media Metrix, 2004; Economist, 2005). As content and network firms are swept into online conglomerates, for example, the largest voice-over-IP company, Skype, was sold to the internet auction site, eBay, for at least $2.6 billion on expected revenues of only $60 million (Economist, 2005).

4. Digital convergent content delivery is a primary product that draws advertising, but revenue to news content providers may depend on the intermediary mix and bundling of service layers

A major phase change has occurred as broadband access dropped to an affordable price point. In the past three years, new revenue streams have appeared for news as well as entertainment (Kirkpatrick, 2003a; Mangalindan, 2003; Quinn, 2005; Shields, 2006) because of new delivery platforms, especially podcasting, satellite radio, digital radio, and video-on-demand (Ives, 2005). In millions of subscribers, Apple iPods (11 million) led the pack in December 2004, followed by VOD (10 m.), DVR (6 m.), Netflix (3 m.), XM radio (2.5 m.), and SIRIUS Satellite Radio (unreported) (Bruner, 2005, p. 15). Wireless connectivity offers improved mobility. Cell phones and handheld wireless devices have become ubiquitous. So far, audience growth has not been matched by a proportionate increase in direct payments from consumers.

By March 2006, Internet penetration reached 73 percent of all American adults – 90 percent have broadband access at work and 42 percent at home (Horrigan, 2006b). Executives told of 5- to 10-fold increases in audio and video users and multi-media programming (Kirkpatrick, 2003). Downloading is replacing streaming. But the biggest factors – file size and bandwidth – still limit Internet feeds. Numerous cable networks including Scripps, CNN, ESPN and the Weather Channel are moving to a broadband model but mostly for entertainment programming (Arampatzis, 2004; Shields, 2006). During the Iraqi invasion, offered “quad screen” webcams and used long-format, multi-camera streams (Kirkpatrick, 2003b; Shields, 2006). The industry seems to be on the verge of offering video-on-demand and possibly podcast news segments to mass audiences.

For most consumers, online production values have not yet reached cinematic, nor even television quality, although more and more consumers have switched to digital television monitors (Kirkpatrick, 2003b). Brandname television and cable news sites (, and did get consumers to pay for online video clips ( Totty, 2004). ABC posts the whole nightly news show; NBC and CBS offer more limited news content online (Ives, 2005). TiVo subscribers will be allowed to transfer recorded programs to handheld devices (Ives, 2005). In general, however, news content providers and aggregators are having limited success in selling premium features, except for the established charges for financial services and access to news archives. Market survival may increasingly depend on online services more than on online content, or probably on bundling the two together (Robertson, 2005-2006; Stahl, Schafer, and Maass, 2004). By comparison, newsgathering content and the subscription revenue it generates only account for about 20 percent of revenue in hard copy newspapers. If content firms are kings (or would-be kings), dominance depends on the ongoing competition with rival corporate princes in the networking, software and telecom sectors.

5. Continuous breaking news operates more in mid-day, mid-week, work environments but has not yet given online news outlets a niche advantage at home

On big news days, the preferred crisis media are radio and television, which have so far been able to gather the largest possible audiences (Kirkpatrick, 2003b). With the advent of PDAs, text messaging has already challenged that dominance, for example on 9/11 ( Pesola, 2003). For real-time crisis coverage, text message news bulletins, online video broadcasting and free voice over IP (VoIP) alerts may soon be significant (Metz, 2003; Pesola, 2003). And, yet it remains uncertain as to whether large sectors of Internet access may be fenced off by online transaction fees, imposed by legislative or regulatory action under pressure from the cable and telecom industries (Goodman, 2006). grew from 800,000 users in 2003 to have an estimated reach of 130 million users over an average month by June 2006, compared to No. 1 news website with 30 million unique visitors per month (, 2006;, 2006; Mangalindan, 2003).

6. Information retrieval and storage (one form of aggregation) continue to pull in news seeking audiences

The audience seems divided between those consumers who want comparative headlines and useful information bits and a segment who want in-depth data documents and in-context reports.

The basic product hasn’t changed: news content in words. No matter how compelling, images, including video images, require word-concepts to establish a context. What is revolutionary are the methods of retrieval and storage. Consider the business models implicit in these findings:

SOURCING, DATABASES and SEARCH ENGINES. By and large, the newspaper-based news sites are competing head-on with derivative portal sites that gain their news currency from their corporate bundling and one-stop ease of use. Synergy goes so far by re-packaging; whereas solid reporting and reliably interpretive news goes the whole way. Audiences are divided on what they want.

ONLINE “UMBRELLA” GEOGRAPHY. The geography of online news is simple. It gives any website an option of becoming a “full service” global news service, analogous to what WTBS did by becoming a super-station. National and international news coverage remains free because there are so many suppliers. After U.S. newspaper chains, television networks and wire services downsized their overseas staffs, new news sites and foreign news organizations (like took over the franchise that the short-term-minded media managers so cleverly gave up in the 1980s and 1990s.

Traditional newspapers and television outlets have regional footprints. In cyberspace, they compete head-to-head. Selling online news at below cost is a lose-lose model. One lesson is that it took 170 years for competing newspapers to put each other out of business and allow the surviving dailies to become cash cow darlings.

A second lesson comes from the wave of mergers and acquisitions since the 1970s—a time when the metros largely ignored suburban newspapers and took a permanent cut in their total market share. Today, behold the multitude of hyper-local, stand-alone news sites. Usually, they’re citizen journalism: in Connecticut; in Portland, Maine; and Greensboro101, North Carolina (Dorroh, 2005). Sometimes, they’re business boosterism: in Missoula, Mont. Occasionally, they’re venture capital masquerading as independent media:, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Despite the local-local-local strategy of the 1990s (Carlson, 2005), what’s noteworthy is that the metro papers and TV stations have historically ignored chicken-dinner and bowling league coverage, and they now seem to be under-investing in super-local web coverage.

Noteworthy too is that the free side of the Internet news is alive and well (,,, and Note that non-profit news sites end in the domain names “org” or “net,” not “com.” Unlike what happened to amateur radio in the 1920s and 1930s, citizen-produced content is not going away in the face of oligopoly commercial competition and possible legal restrictions to create profitable online bottle necks. Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds are rapidly becoming commonplace as ways to share content outside of corporate firewalls (Scott, 2004). The amount of total online traffic consumed by BitTorrent shows that peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing for free is going to continue to compete with all for-profit business models. The final hand in the endgame for global media dominance has not been played yet.

7. Portal conduits (another form of aggregation) successfully draw audiences, and the competition is over their potential to steer consumers to points of view and products

After years of being ranked No. 3 as a news website, Yahoo! News has repeatedly displaced and from month-to-month even though it has no reporters and produces no original stories (comScore Media Metrix, 2004; Delaney, 2005; Bruner, 2005; Palser, 2002). Its news operations benefit from its portal status with over 25 million unique visitors a month (, 2006; Palser, 2002). More than 85 percent of visitors to Yahoo! News arrive from other Yahoo sites (Delaney, 2005).

Using similar advantages, channels users from its computer technology portal to (, 2006;, 2006). has about 65 editors on staff. Traditional media companies can also use their offline reach and resources to attract online attention (Kolo and Vogt, 2004; Nielsen/NetRatings, 2006b) – for example, relies on hundreds of Cable News Network correspondents and producers (Delaney, 2005). Google News placed No. 9 (, 2006), and its parent site has built features like Google Earth and acquired (which owns Blogspot) as ways to attract audiences to its portal. Meanwhile in Britain, three government reports rejected complaints from commercial news organizations that the portal presence and analogous expansion of the British Broadcasting System would “crowd out” for-profit online news (Arampatzis, 2004; Terazono, 2006).

Yahoo! News ranked ahead of news websites offered by the Tribune, Knight Ridder, USA Today and ABC (, 2006). Yahoo’s re-publishes work from 100 or so news sources and gives visitors a one-stop search engine to another 7,000 catalogued online news sources (Delaney, 2005). With about 20 in-house editors, it categorizes stories, packages them with graphic and video material, and prioritizes “full coverage” sections that aggregate running stories on selected topics. Local and international news as well as alternative news sources tend to be under-represented (Delaney, 2005; Palser, 2002).

8. Interactive networking offers perhaps the most potential for consolidating and mobilizing news audiences, but so far it is the least explored and fastest growing unique medium feature

Analysts continue to point to interactivity as the biggest under-utilized attraction of Internet news ( Bucy, 2004; Carlson, 2005 ; Riley, 2006 ). Web logs (or blogs) are, perhaps, the biggest new area of citizen news-oriented involvement. In 2005, blogs drew in between $10 million and $20 million of all Internet advertising (Foege, 2006). On average, 13-to-24-year-olds spent 16.7 hours per week online, excluding e-mail. AOL, Yahoo!, and Tribune have all bought or syndicated blog aggregators (Foege, 2006). In 2004, The Washington Post bought Slate from Microsoft (Dorroh, 2005). and, each average more than 1.5 million unique visitors a month and attracts three time that many (Dorroh, 2005; Foege, 2006 ). has a distribution network with 790 blogs, which supposedly gets as much traffic as the (Foege, 2006). With an estimated 20 million bloggers, news outlets see the op-ed potential to create relationships with those under 35 (Foege, 2006). The young adult demographic segment is the least interested in traditional news content (Brown, 2003; Liebau, 2005; Palser, 2005), and 64 percent of national marketers are eager to advertise on blogs (Foege, 2006).End of article


About the author

Dr. Frederick Schiff received his doctorate in political sociology at UCLA and taught sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. For 10 years, he worked as a reporter and foreign correspondent, covering Latin America, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the United States. He has worked for the Associated Press, United Press International and USA Today. Schiff speaks Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish. He has written more than 2,000 news and feature stories for print and broadcast media. He recently completed a four-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study newspaper management and the news. He is writing a book about news content and the role of the publishers. He is a tenured associate professor in the School of Communication at the University of Houston. He teaches journalism, media studies and media economics. Schiff is also the director of the Global Institute for Urban Communication and the publisher/editor of a student-faculty news website at


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Contents Index

Copyright ©2006, First Monday.

Copyright ©2006, Fred Schiff.

Trends emerging more clearly: Business models of news Web Sites by Fred Schiff
First Monday, Special Issue #6: Commercial applications of the Internet (July 2006),