News Sites Hold Onto Gains From 2008 Election Cycle

Americans have been unable to kick their addiction to online news, despite the post election/inauguration saturation coverage and the relentless stream of here-comes-another-Depression news.

The Web’s top news sites have lost little if any audience in the nearly six months since Barack Obama was elected president. And though the hardest of hard-core political sites have experienced erosion, most have set new audience thresholds. “We were anxious to see where traffic went heading into this year,” said Kyoo Kim, vp of sales at MSNBC.com. “It’s been very encouraging.”

According to numbers compiled by Nielsen Online, in March category giants MSNBC.com (39.9 million uniques) CNN.com (38.7 million and Yahoo News (37.9 million) each saw their unique user bases dip just a few percentage points since their November peak. It seems as though the mega-interest in the great race between Obama and Sen. John McCain has habituated users to garner more news online.

“That’s what we’ve seen before,” said Chuck Schilling, research director for agency & media analytics at Nielsen Online. “After a major event the subsequent dip is not as deep as before the event happened. People get exposed and change their behavior. There is something that sticks.”

Foxnews.com has also gotten more folks to stick since the election, actually seeing its audience climb during each of the first three months of the year to 16.8 million uniques in March.

Jeremy Steinberg, FoxNews.com’s vp digital sales and business development, said that page views for the site’s politics section are up 50 percent since the election, and business traffic is up as well. “With any big story or event, you always get more sampling,” said Steinberg. “When users come to us, they explore the site, find out they like us and stay.”


The left-leaning HuffingtonPost.com’s traffic had been a bit more spiky post election, actually peaking this past February at 8.9 million uniques before dipping to 6.7 million in March. However, that site—which has widened its scope beyond politics of late—has set a new audience ceiling compared to just a year ago, when its audience sat below 4 million users.

“These are extraordinary times,” said Huffington Post co-founder and editor in chief Arianna Huffington. “It’s not as though Obama moved into the White House and we all got back to our lives. There is so much drama every day.” Huffington added that the site’s Living and Style sections are also proving a draw for new audiences, helping to assuage any possible traffic dip among political junkies.

HuffingtonPost’s diversity appears wise, as the post-election period has been far tougher on pure politics players like Politico.com, which has lost 27 percent of its audience since November, and RealClearPolitics.com (down 56 percent). Smaller, heavily partisan blogs like Daily Kos and Redstate have even seen traffic fall below Nielsen’s minimum thresholds.
“They have definitely seen the worst of it,” said Schilling. “I don’t think it’s a sign of trouble. People are just not coming back with the same frequency. They’re taking a deep breath right now.”

Meanwhile the ongoing financial crisis is not proving as compelling a narrative as Campaign 2008. Most of the sites in that category have seen their audience flatten since spiking last fall when the crisis exploded. While category dominator Yahoo News has gained over 1 million users since October to reach 25.5 million in March, content sites like Forbes.com and CNNMoney.com have seen their numbers reflect the volatility of the market; going up one month and down the next.

Users may be deliberately avoiding financial news sites temporarily. “It’s depressing, and there is enough depressing stuff out there,” said Jordan Bitterman, senior vp, media, marketing, content at Digitas.

But Chris Peacock editor and vp of CNNMoney.com (which saw its audience dip to 7.3 million uniques in March after surpassing 9 million in several recent months) contends traffic has reached another level from where it was two years ago. “The story of the economy really started in the summer of ’07 when real estate became soft,” he said. “That’s when the traffic pickup for us really began and it’s crescendoed all the way to the financial crisis.” Peacock doubts that people are turning away, pointing to the rage over government bailouts.

But Bitterman theorized that many users may be getting their financial news from their favorite mainstream news sites, many of which have started to offer similar financial tools and updated stock tickers. “During the last election cycle, many people got very comfortable with these news sites and got enthused by the process,” he said. “They probably went deeper into these sites’ financial sections. The economy is a news story, not just a financial story.”