The number of monthly visitors to major newspaper web sites increased significantly during the recent election, and then appeared to decline according to this chart compiled by the Nieman Foundation, which promotes journalistic excellence.
But by concentrating on newspapers, the chart paints a misleading picture of digital competition to attract audiences interested in news.
The New York Times has the largest number of visitors in the Nieman chart, but its website ranked 5th among Internet news sites in October 2008 behind MSNBC, CNN, Yahoo News and AOL. The Times had about 20.3 million unique visitors that month, barely trailing AOL but far behind the other three sites. Yahoo News was in third place with 37.3 million unique visitors, so the Times would have needed 85 percent more visitors just to catch up.
I don't have access to data for the entire period listed in the Nieman chart, but the October 2008 figures are probably representative of the real online market for news. Large newspaper web sites compete with broadcasters such as Fox, ABC, NPR and the BBC, and with Internet only sites such as Topix, Google and Yahoo news, or the Huffington Post.
There is some evidence of how this really works in the chart, but it's not explained. In July 2007 The Times, NBC, and MSNBC announced a deal to share political coverage on the web. One goal was to increase each company's audience for news.
Apparently, it worked. The Nieman chart shows a sharp increase in visitors to the Times site over the next three months. The increase resulted in a substantial lead over its nearest newspaper rivals that persisted through December of 2008.
Meanwhile, the October 2008 data shows election coverage by two of the Times' longtime print rivals -- The Washington Post and USA Today -- produced substantial increases in visitors to their web sites. But neither came close to matching The Times and its partners on the web.
The chart posted by Nieman reflects a wider mindset in the newspaper part of the journalism industry that just won't go away. The mindset is mistaken -- this is a different market, with different rules and different competitors, and it should always be talked about that way.