Study: Stations ‘Have a Long Way to Go’ on Web

Station executives like to talk about the great revenue potential on the Web, but a new survey indicates that station sites are a ways from earning real cash. Just under 31% of station Websites are turning a profit, according to a new study from RTNDA/Hofstra University. Around 10% are breaking even, 17% are showing a loss, and a whopping 42% of responding station managers simply “don’t know” if their site is making money.

The numbers were a little better in midsized markets (#26-50), where 40% say they’re making money on their Website, and 37% don’t know.

RTNDA Chairman Stacey Woelfel said the study “holds a mirror up for us to see the immediate need for more editorial supervision and management vision” on station sites. "These sites have never been as important as they are now and are, of course, a primary path for us to deliver news to our audiences--now and even more so in the future,” he said. “This research gives every news director in America something to examine in his or her own newsroom."

The survey was conducted in the fourth quarter of 2008 among 1,648 non-satellite TV stations. Valid responses came from 73.5% of them.

Station managers often say the key to a successful online presence is dedicated Web staffers, and stations added about half a person to the payroll for Web-only activity in 2009. Stations average 2.3 full time and 3.7 part time employees on the Web, for a total of 6. The total is just 3.6 people in markets 1-25, but 6.7 in markets 26-50 and 7.2 in markets 51-100.

In the newsroom, 38% of respondents said “most of the staff” is on top of producing news across multiple platforms. A glaring 48% say the newsroom has “a long way to go”, and almost 14% said newsroom personnel are “mostly winging it” online.

The study also took a close look at what sort of content stations are offering online. Nearly 93% offer news video, 34% do live newscasts on the Web, and 31% offer recorded newscasts. Among the content categories you didn’t hear much about five years ago, 56% offer blogs and 12% produce podcasts. Around 41% are integrating social networking into the Website, while 36% have thus far had nothing to do with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Not surprisingly, “local news” topped the list of what users want to see on station sites, followed by local weather. Those also finished 1-2 last year. Sports came in third—one place higher than a year ago.

Indicating either the vast potential of the web, or stations’ inability to successfully execute on that platform thus far, just 38% of news directors said they’re comfortable that their stations are really on top of new technology and where they’re headed.

“Clearly stations have a long way to go,” concluded survey author/Hofstra journalism chair Bob Papper.

Michael Malone

Michael Malone is content director at B+C and Multichannel News. He joined B+C in 2005 and has covered network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television, including writing the "Local News Close-Up" market profiles. He also hosted the podcasts "Busted Pilot" and "Series Business." His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Boston Globe and New York magazine.