Commentary

How News Websites Can Reverse Slump In Reader Satisfaction

Reader satisfaction with news and opinion websites has declined to the lowest level in six years, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index. The coronavirus pandemic magnified the decline, even as people flocked to news sites while stuck at home during lockdowns.

The ACSI report doesn’t offer a prescription for how news sites can reverse the decline in customer satisfaction, though it does provide some insights on what bothers readers most. In most cases, the dissatisfaction is related to technical issues, though intrusive advertising and lack of editorial variety are significant concerns.

The dissatisfaction with online news is widespread, regardless of the political leanings of audiences, according to the report. The finding is interesting in the context of this week's report by the Knight Foundationthat focused on how people's political views determine whether they trust the news media.

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Among specific news brands, the customer satisfaction rating for The New York Timesfell 8% in the past year to a score of 70 on a scale of 1 to 100, according to the ACSI rating system. The loyalty score for the newspaper fell to the lowest in 15 years, a decline  ACSI's report attributed to criticism of editorial decisions.

A controversial story with details about a whistleblower whose claims led Democrats to open an impeachment inquiry against President Trump led the #CancelNYT hashtag to trend on Twitter last September as ACSI's report notes.

However, the lower loyalty rating hasn't stopped the newspaper from pushing forward with impressive subscriber growth. The New York Times this week reported the best subscription growth in company history-- hardly a sign of dissatisfied customers.

News sites get the lowest customer satisfaction ratings for the amount of advertising they carry, with a score of 71 this year compared with 72 in 2019. That finding indicates that news sites may have to look for ways to make advertising intrusive enough to keep sponsors happy, but not so much that it drives away readers. It's a delicate balance of creating a user experience that works for everyone.

Consumers also have become less happy with the variety of information they see, with a satisfaction score falling 4% in the past year, according to the ACSI report. A rating of content freshness also slipped 4%, though it's not clear whether that decline can be attributed to cutbacks in newsrooms. Local news sites tended to show higher customer satisfaction than national news outlets, though smaller publishers expanded a 5% drop in satisfaction in the past year.

Overcoming that decline may be difficult amid the financial constraints faced by publishers, but the finding suggests that news outlets need to pool their resources in ways that have the biggest effect on reader satisfaction.

That may mean performing an audit to determine which areas of coverage are most meaningful to readers, and help to differentiate coverage from other news sites.

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