US Election Breaks Records for News Consumption

If only the US could elect Barack Obama president every day, the American newspaper industry wouldn’t be in so much trouble. As it is, however, advertising at newspapers both print and online has been dropping like a rock the past few years according to the Newspaper Association of America, and circulation for US print newspapers has shed some five million daily readers over the past five years. The most severe percentage losses in ad revenue have come this year, and prominent entrepreneurs have even placed newspapers on “deathwatch” in anticipation of the demise.

However, amid all that doom and gloom, people around the world still turn mainly the mainstream press for news during major events. That was evident yesterday when news began to spread that the United States had elected the first African American president in Senator Barack Obama and traffic to news web sites spiked. Content Delivery Network Akamai’s Net Usage Index recorded the largest traffic ever for global news sites (or least in the past three years) with a peak of 8,572,042 visitors per minute. That’s twice the normal rate, and 18% more than the previous high spike in 2006 when Ghana ousted the US from the World Cup in football (soccer). Akamai serves as the CDN for a large number of a major mainstream news sites, including NBC, the BBC, and CNN.

Those sites almost all saw record traffic. Yahoo! News, which was the top news delivery site, saw an 80% boost in traffic over the 2004 presidential election, while CNN saw traffic jump 146% over the previous day. According to Hitwise, 9 of the top 10 most visited news web sites during the election night were mainstream news destinations (or sources like Yahoo! and Google that reprint mostly mainstream content). The lone exception was the Drudge Report. CNN.com received 30 million unique visitors on election day — double its previous high set earlier this year during so-called Super Tuesday in February, another election related event. The New York Times reported a record 2.7 million page views on its mobile site.

Meanwhile, a record 70 million people were glued to their televisions watching election returns.

Perhaps most surprising, though, was the resurgence of interest in dead tree printed news. The Associated Press reported that newspapers were selling out all over the United States as people clamored for a keepsake. Copies of the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and other newspapers have been selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars, and many papers restarted printing presses for extra print runs to meet demand.

“A newsstand in Evanston, Illinois, sold 100 copies of the [New York] Times in 10 minutes — even as the major local papers, the Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, rushed to print hundreds of thousands of extra copies,” reported the AP. “The [New York] Times decided to print another 75,000 copies for sale in New York, while [...] vending machines and retail stores sold out by midmorning. The Tribune restarted its presses for an extra 200,000 — 10 times more than the increase it had planned. The Washington Post decided at midday to publish 350,000 copies of a slimmed-down commemorative edition. Some papers, such as USA Today, plan to sell reprints of Wednesday’s edition through their Web sites, while Detroit’s two daily newspapers were shipping more than 110,000 reprints combined for sale at stores Thursday.”

Indeed, the Chicago Sun-Times posted an alert on its web site informing readers where to buy a special reprint of Wednesday’s paper on Thursday, and the New York Times put up a picture of the long lines that formed outside its headquarters yesterday as people clamored for a copy. The same thing happened outside the Washington Post headquarters. It is not out of the realm of possibility that this could be the biggest news day since US newspaper circulation peaked in the late 1980s.

Unfortunately for the mainstream news industry, history can’t be made every day. It would be nice if the mainstream newspapers and news web sites could build on the momentum that the historic US election has created for them, but that doesn’t seem likely given the trend over the past couple of years.

While many news sites have been making positive strides by embracing social media and link journalism, their audience has likely been forever fractured by blogs and social news aggregators and readership will never reach the highs of the 80s and 90s.

Still, yesterday was a pretty amazing day for the news industry.

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