Hard numbers on reader participation

With as much attention as user voting models (such as Digg), email to a friend links, etc., are getting, I’ve wondered what the ratio of passive vs. active consumers is. Having been in the business for 12 years, I know that fundamentally people are lazy.

But getting hard numbers isn’t easy. Although a lot of news sites use a lot of real estate for their top rated, top emailed, top clicked stories, they almost never provide the numbers necessary to make a comparison.

I found a site that does: the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore., a small local newspaper with 53,663 daily subscribers.

Here are the numbers for each category for March 7:

Position Most viewed Most recommended Most emailed Most commented
1 1186 3 10 47
2 843 3 7 18
3 774 3 6 17
4 690 3 4 15
5 605 2 4 12
6 593 2 4 11
7 556 2 3 10
8 420 2 3 10
9 412 1 2 9
10 410 1 2 9

To get to position 1 of most commented on this day only 4% of the top viewed had to participate. To get to position 10, about 2%. And it took only 1 person to recommend a story to get it into the top 10 recommended. Participation in the American political process looks phenomenal by comparison.

Of the ones in position 1, only the most commented story even appeared in the top 10 most viewed for the day (with 774 views, it was in position 3).

Most viewed: Oregon City woman dies in head-on crash
Most recommended: Global warming is driven by capitalism
Most emailed: Marine reserves debated during state hearing
Most commented: Teen reports man tried to abduct her

On USA Today, the most commented story had 134 comments and the most recommended story had 751 recommendations. To get in the top 10, a story needed 50 comments or 61 recommendations. USA Today doesn’t publish view counts, but given the much larger distribution it’s safe to assume the percentage of readers participating is much lower. (In print, USA Today is 42x bigger.)

With such low levels of participation, it is relatively easy for passionate users to game such systems. Because users can’t submit their own stories at news sites, the gaming is largely driven by ideology or passion.

In systems where anyone can submit an entry and use it to drive traffic, there are significant financial benefits to be had.

Obligatory pointless disclosure: I worked at the Statesman Journal as a reporter and copy editor while in college.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is CEO of redesign | mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. His personal blog is at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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