The Cyber Newscast

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Online newshounds prefer local sites to national ones.

They say all news is local. But when it comes to winning Web surfers' loyalty, local news is all the news.

As national newspapers, TV networks, and magazines with deep pockets continue pouring money into their Web operations, it's local news sites that are winning the most loyal surfers, according to a new study by consumer research firm cPulse. The survey of more than 8,300 Web users found that local news sites have twice the percentage of loyal customers as their counterparts on the national level. And while national news sites must offer frequent updates and more features around the clock to keep visitors happy, sites dedicated to local news need to do much less to keep their audience coming back for more.

Some 19 million Americans, or 17 percent of Internet surfers, visit news sites at least five days a week, according to technology research firm GartnerGroup. Nearly 27 million people, or 25 percent of Net denizens, forage for news at least once a week.

Conventional wisdom suggests that big-name national news sites with money and broad coverage would be in the best position to attract repeat visitors in search of a news fix. But according to cPulse, consumers are increasingly seeking out more local fare.

In previous surveys conducted by cPulse throughout 2000, consumers said they had grown weary of sites devoted to national news, and defection rates have been on the rise. In a cPulse 60-second poll in the second quarter, for instance, only 26 percent said they were very satisfied with the experience at local news sites, while 37 percent said the same of national sites. But by the third quarter, those numbers flipped: Some 44 percent polled said they were very satisfied with local news sites, while the figure for national sites remained virtually the same.

Local sites have learned about their audience, and have become more adept at gathering and using Web metrics. More importantly, local news sites have learned to maximize their natural advantage: They build geographic affinity with their audience. "Before we completed this study, we thought that national news sites would logically be so much more significant because they're so big," explains cPulse analyst Lily Kong. "But local news sites target a geographic audience with a strong affinity for the content."

That affinity is strong enough to keep them coming back even after they leave town, Kong notes. In fact, cPulse found that a significant portion of traffic to many local sites comes from out-of-towners who have some connection to the region. On any given day, for example, the Detroit Free Press garners between a third and a half of its audience from outside the South Michigan area, says David Blomquist, director of new media at the paper. "That set a mission for us," Blomquist notes. "We realized we were also writing for a more distant audience about local events. It isn't about 24/7 news; people want to be able to dip in every couple of days to re-familiarize themselves with the area."

Simply listening to their audience also allows local news sites to deliver more tailored offerings. The Detroit Free Press, for one, upped the level of local sports content once readers asked for more, and has left in-depth reporting on national and international news to other publications, Blomquist says.

As national news sites have evolved, local news sites find themselves under less pressure to provide any national content, according to cPulse. In fact, in-depth general news coverage has become significantly less important to local site visitors. In the second quarter, those visitors rated depth of coverage the second most important requirement, behind article relevance. In the third quarter, they rated it seventh, while utility of articles and their freshness came in first and second, respectively.

For national news sites, good content organization has an especially huge effect on loyalty. cPulse discovered that about 40 percent of visitors who feel extremely satisfied with content organization remain loyal to that news provider. On the other hand, stale news is a sure route to defection. Up to three-quarters of users of national news sites said current news was critical, but relevance was the most under-delivered need of all.

Equally critical, cPulse found, is the speed of page downloads, increasingly being fettered by large video or sound clips that can reduce the user experience to a crawl. In the second quarter, 56 percent of visitors ranked speed as very important at national news sites. That figure rose to 63 percent in the third quarter, while the number of users satisfied with site speed dropped from 42 percent to 38 percent in the same period.

So what's a news site to do? Local sites should avoid competing with national news sites, says Kong. Instead, national sites should look to establish partnerships with their local counterparts to leverage each others' strengths. And equally significant, all sites must add useful search engines and personalization features, while ensuring that nifty new-media features complement the user experience.

For more information, contact cPulse at www.cpulse.com.

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