Bin Laden Death Burned Up Twitter, but Proved TV and Newspapers Still Tops for Big Events

Real News Delivers Real Numbers to Legacy (and New) Media

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Just before one of the biggest news stories in almost 10 years broke -- the death of Osama bin Laden -- signs of the news started emerging on Twitter. The platform went on to handle the most frantic activity of its five years in operation. But this was no media revolution.

In fact, as the week went on, bin Laden's demise actually played to, and paid off for, old-school news operators, far more than you might have expected after hearing so much about social media's role in recent news events. Twitter averaged 3,000 posts per second during peak activity late May 1 and into last Monday, May 2, its highest sustained rate of tweets ever. But TV won Sunday night as President Barack Obama's speech averaged 56.5 million viewers over about nine minutes, Nielsen said.

In TV, broadcast was the victor over cable news. Despite cable news channels' seemingly perfect fit for the moment, more than 70% of the audience watched on broadcast channels, according to a TVB analysis of Nielsen data.

The sharpest effects, for media new and old, seem to have tapered quickly. Print runs, tweets and viewership have returned to normal already or will soon. "From a business standpoint, I would say it's a short-term impact," said Dave Hunke, president and publisher at USA Today. The paper published 200,000 extra copies last Monday and 100,000 extra on Tuesday. From Monday through Wednesday, its website experienced a 25% surge in page views and a 5% increase in unique visitors.

Other newspapers had a similar experience. The New York Times printed an additional 165,000 copies May 2 and 250,000 more May 3, which included a special 10-page section on bin Laden. From 10 p.m. May 1 until midnight, page views on totaled 62% more than the same time period over the prior four Sundays. May 2 page views were up 40%. The Washington Post printed 70,000 extra copies May 2, and on that day the website saw 106% more page views than a normal Monday. The additional traffic declined each successive day, but even as late as May 5 page views were 21% higher than a typical Thursday.

The larger impact may be a harder-to-define reminder that traditional, expensive journalism still has a place. Just about everyone got record or near-record traffic, of course, including unlikely candidates such as tech site Mashable, which attracted its most unique visitors ever May 2 after posting lots of entries pegged to the news (though it was criticized for headlines many called "link bait," such as "Crowds Celebrate Osama Bin Laden's Death in NYC & Washington, DC [PICS]").

But for one day, at least, traditional news sites returned to the era before they depended on links from social media and aggregators for so much of their traffic.

More readers came directly to the Time .com homepage throughout the day last Monday than ever have before. "I was so surprised how many people came in through our front door, through our home page, which as you know is coming less and less often for everybody," said Kim Kelleher, VP and publisher at Time . "It's usually who's linked to and who's aggregated. This time they went to their browser and typed Time .com."

Once they got there, they stayed. The home page's "bounce rate," the proportion of people leaving for other sites, was 29% on Monday -- the lowest it has ever been.

In print, Time decided to publish an issue May 6 after all, having previously moved its regular Friday issue to the prior Monday to capitalize on the royal wedding.

At first Ms. Kelleher and the rest of the staff didn't think the new "End of bin Laden" issue would carry ads. Then an editor joined an email chain to argue that this wouldn't be a "terrorism" issue. "This was a Victory in Europe cover, it's a sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square cover," Ms. Kelleher recalled him writing, in part. "I got the chills, I changed my mind and I read this to the entire sales team and the entire business team."

Between 2 or 2:30 p.m. on Monday and 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Time sold 10 ad pages in the issue to marketers including Geico, the arthritis-pain reliever Vimovo and Jeep, which opens the issue with a two-page spread.

Where were you when you found out Osama bin Laden was dead? Join the discussion here.

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