A new study of web advertising and traffic shows that the Times needs only 1.1 billion more monthly page views -- or approximately six times its current web traffic -- to make enough money to afford a web-only product.
That's extremely discouraging news for all those print naysayers who keep arguing that future of journalism lies on the web.
The study, conducted by Laura Fine, the research director of ContentNext.org, was released this morning and reported in Ad Age. Fine estimates that with 1.3 billion monthly page views, the Times could earn $300 million a quarter in ad revenues, roughly equal to what the print edition delivers -- meaning that would be enough to keep the Times in business without printing the newspaper.
"Based on our research," Fine wrote, "the conversation [with advertisers] gets interesting at 200 million page views plus a month, but much more so around 800 million." In October, the Times had 173 million page views -- significant in the print media world, but nothing by contrast to high-traffic, ad-supported websites like Yahoo.
The real news in Fine's study, then, lies in her unexpressed truth -- that even with the Times's heavy web traffic, the Internet just can't yet generate enough profit to become self-sustaining. She argues that smaller websites with low overhead -- such as Drudge Report -- can better afford to function as a web-only business than the Times, which devotes hundreds of millions of dollars to its editorial product.
Maybe the reason the major media news/gossip websites haven't yet posted the news of Fine's study is that they're too busy gathering names of the latest laid-off journalists and reporting new rumors of magazine closings. But in a way, it's worse news -- because unless the Times starts offering either some sort of web search or mail service along with its news content like Yahoo or AOL, its website will never be profitable enough to survive without a money-draining newsprint property attached.