Nola.com Grows Audience, Continues to Attract Expats Post-Katrina

The circulation figures released this week don’t paint a very promising picture for newspapers. But not all of the numbers are grim. Some newspapers’ combined print and online audiences have recently grown, including The Times-Picayune‘s, which increased by 7 percent in the last year.

In the four years since Hurricane Katrina struck, The Times-Picayune‘s Web site, Nola.com, has seen an increase in both page views and unique visitors per month and has continued to strengthen its ties to its audience by serving not just New Orleanians, but expats who are looking for ways to stay connected to the community they left behind.

“Traffic increased more than 40 times normal in the immediate aftermath of the storm. And even after it settled back down, the Web site’s new audience was more than 50 percent greater than its pre-storm levels,” said Nola.com’s director of content, James O’Byrne, who has worked in various capacities at The Times-Picayune for 27 years. “That gives you some indication that the storm helped to create a habit or a need for people to go to the site for information about what was happening in New Orleans.”

Prior to Katrina, O’Byrne said, Nola.com received between 600,000 and 700,000 page views per day. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, it averaged 30 million page views per day — 42 times more than the normal pre-storm daily traffic. It now averages 1.1 million to 1.2 million daily page views, about 60 percent more than before Katrina.

The site also has one of the highest market penetrations of any local news Web site in the country. Two recent studies show that Nola.com reached 85.8 percent of the metropolitan area in 2009 and 87.3 percent in 2007. The Times-Picayune‘s print weekday circulation, meanwhile, has dropped 9.04 percent in the past year. Sunday sales have dropped 8.54 percent.

The market penetration and print circulation figures make sense when you consider the Times-Picayune‘s online audience and how it grew as a result of a hurricane that flooded more than 80 percent of the city.

The Times-Picayune‘s coverage of this disaster helped it develop a heightened sense of connectedness with New Orleanians. “I think that the storm was transformative for the Web site and its relevance to readers,” said O’Byrne. “Certainly during Katrina we were moment by moment and learned the power of a constantly updated, dynamically updated Web site throughout the day.”

O’Byrne doesn’t have specific demographic information about the site’s visitors, but said anecdotal evidence suggests many people who left New Orleans still turn to the site for local news.

“I know from my interactions with readers on the site that there are a significant number of displaced residents of the metropolitan area who still go to Nola.com as part of their daily routine,” said O’Byrne, noting that the majority of the site’s audience is local.

Nola.com has “almost obsessively” reported on the progress of flood control improvements and about whether the benchmarks of recovery are being met, O’Byrne said.

The site features several forums — including some that are geared toward hurricane recovery — on which people discuss ongoing relief efforts and struggles that the city continues to face. The forums and comment sections, O’Byrne said, are both areas where expats engage in Times-Picayune content that still matters to them.

Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss noted that the paper does not specifically gear its coverage toward displaced New Orleanians. Given their desire for news about New Orleans, though, it doesn’t necessarily have to.

“New Orleans exerts a remarkable hold on New Orleanians,” Amoss said. “They tend not to leave the city. Those who must yearn to return. At best, many do. At worst, they have to content themselves with tangible symbols of their attachment.”

The Times-Picayuneis one of these symbols, Amoss said, just as Camellia red beans, coffee and chicory and crawfish are.

“NOLA.com,” he said, “allows displaced New Orleanians — like resident locals, an opinionated bunch — to express themselves about events and public affairs in their hometown and how they’re covered by us.”

One of the more significant recent events was President Barack Obama’s visit to the city earlier this month. During the president’s visit, Nola.com posted video, blog and article updates throughout the day.

The Times-Picayune‘s reporters, O’Byrne said, are much more technologically equipped than they were prior to Katrina. Now, they have laptops and air cards, making them more able to report stories such as Obama’s visit in real time.

Real-time reporting is especially relevant to ex-pats, who can’t physically be at the events taking place in the city. But the same could be said for news Web sites in any city.

The difference with Nola.com, O’Byrne said, is that the value of the content is greater because New Orleans ex-pats didn’t leave voluntarily. They’re more apt, therefore, to feel like they’re still part of the community.

“In New Orleans we have a real keen sense of what it means to have a vibrant daily newspaper in a community and have a really acute sense of what value is added to a community because of a vibrant, daily newspaper,” O’Byrne said. “Certainly the storm taught us that and the degree to which journalism is more than a job; it’s really mission-driven work.”

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