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Navigating News Online

About the Study

A number of members of the PEJ staff assisted in the production of this report, “How People Interact with News Online.”

The team leaders on the project were research analyst Kenny Olmstead and Deputy Director Amy Mitchell. Dana Page and Tricia Sartor aided in the visual displays.

How People Interact with News Online is based on an in-depth analysis by PEJ staff of data purchased from the Nielsen Netview database. We began with Nielsen’s full list of more than 5000 “News and Information” websites. We culled the list to remove sites that would not be considered news related such as databases, consulting firms and sources like the National Weather Service. We also drove more deeply to identify individual news sites rather than families of sites. For instance, when Nielsen publishes its list of the top news sites, it uses CNN Digital Network, which is actually several different sites. In our analysis we use, its primary news site. Next, we identified the top 25 sites on the list, according to each site’s unique visitors averaged across 9 months, the first three quarters of 2010. The main research was then conducted in four parts using data from this list of 25 sites.  The first part is usage data averaged from the first three quarters of 2010.  The second is referral site data averaged from March, June, and September 2010.  The third is destination page data from the same time period. The final data set is demographic data on the users who go to the top 25 news sites.  

Site Usage Data

This data included all of the top 25 news sites according to Nielsen.  PEJ first looked at the list of Nielsen’s top “News and Information” category for September.  Then sites that were not strictly news were pulled out.  For example many of the top sites only provide weather information, for the purposes of this study PEJ pulled these sites out of the list. The resulting list is a list of the top 25 news properties in the U.S.
The usage data included 2 main measurements, visits per month and time spent per month.  A visit, or “session”, is defined as “a continuous series of URL requests.” By Nielsen’s definition a session is ended after 30 minutes of inactivity, and that session is then logged as being however long the average session is for the site.  For example if a user is reading a story and leaves the tab open for more than 30 minutes, that session is ended and the time spent for that session is logged as whatever the average session on is.  These visits were then broken out by what percentage of the audience visited once per month, twice, etc. up to 10 or more times per month.  

Time spent per month is the total number of minutes spent on a website over a month.  Similar to visits this is broken down into several increments of the percentage of visitors to each site that spent from 1-5 seconds to over an hour.  

Referral Sites

This data set included 21 of the top 25 sites.  The Wall Street Journal,, Bing News, and Reuters are structured in a way that prevents Nielsen from capturing this data.    

A “referral” is when a user clicks on a link to get to one of the top 21 sites.  For example if a user clicks on a link to a story on that was embedded in a story on the New York Times, then that counts as one “referral” to from  The resulting percentage is a percentage of the traffic to each site that comes from other sites.  Because of the way some sites are structured it is possible to be “referred” from within the same site.  For example and are different subdomains, if a user clicks from to is counted as a referral from  

Destination Pages

This list of sites as well is the top 21 of 25 sites, for the same reasons cited under referral sites.  A destination page refers to a where users go when they leave a site.  This is measured by users clicking on links within one site that takes them to another site.  Under Nielsen’s panel based system 5 users must exhibit a specific destination pattern for it to be counted at all.  For example if a user clicks on a link to Facebook from a story in it counts Facebook as a “destination” page for, but 5 users on Nielsen’s panel must exhibit this behavior for it to be counted at all.  

PEJ grouped destination pages with common purposes into larger categories.  The three main categories are: subdomains within the main site, sharing tools, and search. Subdomains within the same page are defined at users clicking on a link that takes them to a different place in the same site (the same situation as a user being “referred” from to a user can leave from to  The second category is sharing sites or tools.  This includes Facebook, but also share tools or widgets used by many sites that allow users to share the story it many different sharing sites.  The third is search; for the most part this is Google.  


For the demographics PEJ analyzed Nielsen Netview data from September 2010.  The data is broken down by gender, age, income, education, and geographic region.  For this study PEJ only looked at certain key demographics, but the Nielsen data offers more detailed breakdowns for each site.

Nielsen’s Methodology

Here is a PDF of Nielsen’s “Glossary of Terms” which gives some insight to Nielsen’s various methodologies. Here is Nielsen’s publicly available synopsis of its methodology, for a more detailed version contact the Nielsen Company directly.  

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