Nielsen’s Undercount of News: Why the Numbers Don’t Add Up

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Social networking has become the 800-pound gorilla of the Internet. That’s what Nielsen is trumpeting in a new report. And news, it says, is a tiny mouse.

Or is it?

Nielsen’s Social Media Report says news accounts for just 2.6% of Internet use compared to 22.5% for social networking and blogs.  But that news number doesn’t hold up under examination.

First, Nielsen’s methodology of focusing on destinations exclusively may be basically flawed. Woody Lewis, a social media strategist and Web architect who blogs  about the exponential power and velocity of information sharing, says the measurement underestimates and misinterprets traffic. “You don’t have to follow a link to a story to receive its content,” he says. “The vast majority of pieces posted by my Facebook friends, for example, contain enough information in the teaser.”

Second, the Nielsen report’s narrow classification of news—as “current events and global news”—means that other kinds of news are shifted to a catch-all “other” category, and not counted.

Third, the report distorts news’ ranking by using raw minutes as a measuring stick. The total per-month time per user for all destinations is 1,640 minutes, according to Nielsen data.  That means that news—using Nielsen’s restrictive definition—accounts for 43 minutes. That nearly 1-to-40 ratio looks terrible, but if you spent 20 minutes on Facebook looking at the photo album of your friend’s recent trip to the French Riviera compared to 30 seconds reading about the record number of dropouts at your local high school, does that make the dropout story 1/40th as important as your friend’s photo album?

Lewis further undermines the Nielsen methodology of erecting a Chinese wall between social networking and news: “Social networks are inherently journalistic. Consider the tweeting and re-tweeting of Sully landing his plane in the Hudson, or the many events of the Arab Spring. Here, the social network was the source, not the container, for the news.”

How much news is embedded in social networking, primarily Facebook? My conservative guesstimate, based on what both Lewis and digital technology blogger Sree Sreenivisan say, is at least 5% to 10%. That would add about 28 minutes to news, raising its monthly total to 71 minutes. Throw in news embedded in Twitter, Tumblr and other social networks and blogs, and news as a destination surely reaches 80 minutes per user per month. Finally, add news that Nielsen disaggregates to “other,” and the monthly number for all news has to be at or above 90 minutes per month per user—or a minimum of 3 minutes per day.

Now, news moves up from the bottom rung of Nielsen’s 10 destinations to the high middle.  The mouse is beginning to roar. And that roar can become full throated because social networking—news’ powerful carrier—shows no sign of peaking. (Social networking surged 200% in time spent in the U.S. in 2009, according to Nielsen.)

But news can’t just expect to piggy-back on the force of social networking. It has to keep innovating. It has to find new ways to capitalize on people’s desire to connect and share with their friends. Tweeting the story about the high rate of high school dropouts to a friend is a start.  But what about asking your friend what she thinks of that news, and would she be interested in joining the new advocacy group that wants to turn the dropout numbers around, and has established an interactive space on the local news site as a starter?  This sharing may add just 30 seconds to your news’ monthly minutes, but those 30 seconds may help set in motion action to reduce dropouts at your local high school.

News has to amount to more than information to be “consumed.” Through social (and civic) networking, it can become the catalyst to help the community solve problems, especially in these times of unwaveringly high expectations but severely constrained resources.

But if and when that happens, don’t count on Nielsen to measure the impact.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.