In The Punch vs National Times debate, the missing metric is personality

If you’re one of the 12 people who cares about whether Fairfax’s National Times has more traffic than Crikey or News Ltd’s The Punch (and I think I’m one of them) there’s an interesting piece about the opinion sites in the Sydney Morning Herald today.  

According to Julian Lee, Fairfax has now persuaded Nielsen to publish what it describes as “comparable traffic figures”.

The debate has emerged because as well as having its own URL, much of the content for the National Times sits within the and mastheads.

Meanwhile. News Ltd’s The Punch exists as a genuinely standalone site.

At present The Punch appears to have its nose ahead of Crikey. But depending how one measures its traffic, the National Times is either way ahead of, or way behind, them both.

Fairfax’s Pippa Leary flagged up the debate  when she joined the comment stream in Mumbrella’s piece  earlier this month on the ABC’s ambitious plans to boost its opinion content.

In that she said: 

Fairfax Digital’s National Times is in fact more than just one URL. Just like we did with Business Day, we created National Times not as a stand-alone site, but as a network of sites, embedded in our mastheads reflecting the location of our consumers across Australia. To count just one single URL is not reflective of its true traffic.

Our National Times figure is therefore made up of,,, and

Fairfax Digital is currently working with Nielsen to get National Times up in MI. In the meantime, to give you an idea of our traffic, the numbers through Nielsen’s Site Census confirm that we are reaching:

  • 30,401 UBs –
  • 750,298 UBs –
  • 575,902 UBs –
  • 65,438UBs –
  • 60,151UBS –

Combined estimate is about 1.25 million UBs per month – about 4 times the size of our competitors..

While using this method, we’re not able to role these up into a single figure, but the MI data will soon confirm National Times as Australia’s leading online opinion site.

In my view, that’s a legitimate tactic for Fairfax if what the company is trying to do is provide a package for advertisers interested in reaching an audience who want to read coment and opinion. I guess that could indeed be a sensible sales story.

But where it becomes misleading is if it attempts to claim that audience as engaged readers who have come to the National Times through the front door – or are indeed aware they are inside the National Times.

While The Punch has a distinct personality and its individual staff have their own profiles, National Times has little of that yet.

Punch editor David Penberthy, for instance, has 3000 or so followers on Twitter and tweets actively (as do his colleagues). He’s also got his own profile via Sky News and his newspaper column.

His counterpart on National Times, Darren Goodsir (and I had to look that up, which perhaps says it all) has a far lower online profile. I can’t tell for certain whether it is him, but the only Darren Goodsir I can find on Twitter has five followers.

And despite promoting its Twitter profile on its home page, National Times has less than 500 followers and hasn’t tweeted since November 4.

None of these numbers mean anything in absolute terms, but they all point towards one-way traffic from National Times in the way it is engaging with its readers. It doesn’t feel like a conversation. As I write, only one of the items on the National Times home page has received reader comments in the double figures. Most have none at all.

Look too at the two approaches from Penbo and Goodsir when they launched their respective sites. On both occasions we invited them to write guest posts for Mumbrella. Penbo’s piece was engaged and conversational while Goodsir’s was little more than a press release. It certainly doesn’t smack of online engagement.

Of course, good editors don’t necessarily need to be good writers. And in fairness to Goodsir, Penbo’s probably being paid four times as much.

What Fairfax gets from National Times is efficient use of its exisiting resources. What you get from The Punch is personality. But I’m not sure how Nielsen can measure that.

Tim Burrowes


  1. Larry
    27 Nov 09
    9:32 am

  2. I am unsure why these people think advertisers care about cheap opinion/free editorial/politician soapbox sites.

    Agency: “Want to run your banner ads next to a poorly written misinformed opinion piece about Penny Wong’s choice of pantsuit?”

    Client: “Erm, not really unless there’s nothing better out there.”

  3. Larry
    27 Nov 09
    9:47 am

  4. it’s also important to add that the key metric for an op-ed site surely isn’t topline unique browsers … real success would be measured by regular repeat traffic and monthly time spent.

    ub’s can be gamed too easily – what national times is doing is the online equivalent of putting a political opinion piece in the middle of the Womens Weekly and claiming it has a high end AB, politically aware opinion leader audience of 1m people.

  5. Stilgherrian
    27 Nov 09
    9:49 am

  6. I must be one of those 12 too, Tim, ‘cos I’m intrigued enough by web traffic numbers to have made a goose of myself in Crikey yesterday.

    One important question here is WTF do we actually mean by “most popular”?

    The industry-standard metric seems to be “unique browsers monthly” or “daily”. But if a site has, say, 1000 unique visitors a day who each view on average 5 pages per visit, but another has 2000 visitors who only view 2 pages each, which is “the” most popular?

    How does that change if on one site the average time per page is 2 minutes as folks read a complete op-ed piece, but on the other they just glance at the headline and bounce through in 5 seconds?

    How does that change if, as I did just then, I didn’t really spend 10 minutes looking at your web page but instead wandered across the kitchen to see how the pasta was going?

    All statistics are lies and propaganda anyway. 😉