Photo illustration: Tom Hall/Bloomberg

The Post Is Bigger Than the Times Online. Or Not

In the Web-based battle between legacy media companies, each side is winning in its own way.

Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post and in just over two years made it bigger than the New York Times, at least on the Web. The Post’s online traffic surpassed the Times’s in October, and widened the gap last month, according to recently released statistics from ComScore. About 71.6 million people visited the Post's sites last month, about 4 percent more than the Times’s audience of 68.8 million.

The Washington Post’s strategy to win the Internet mirrors that of newer competitors like BuzzFeed, as laid out well in this piece on Digiday. The paper has focused on social media, especially Facebook, and dedicated itself to publishing more viral and bloggy content.

The Post is far from the only old media company to try this. Almost every newspaper company is feverishly hiring social media editors and experimenting with webby forms of journalism that its editors would have turned their noses up at a few years ago. The Times’s masthead lists its editor for innovation and strategy just below its deputy executive editor. Last week, Tribune Media invested $25 million in Dose Media, a viral content farm, in part so it can use Dose’s algorithms to identify potentially viral stories written by its newspaper staff to share on Facebook.

The traffic numbers seem to show that the Post is beating the Times at this game, which is a big deal given the two papers’ competition to become the national newspaper of record. But if you look at other aspects of their Web traffic, the Times can also make a pretty good case that it is beating the Post. The graph below shows the sources of desktop traffic for both the Times and Post last month, according to SimilarWeb. 

The Post pulls a bigger proportion of traffic from social and search, reflecting a more nimble Web operation. The Times, by contrast, is getting much more traffic directly, from people typing nytimes.com into a browser. The takeaway: Many more people are actively seeking out the Times. They're sticking around for longer, too. According to SimilarWeb, the average Times Web reader spends four and a half minutes on the site and looks at 2.75 pages; the average Post reader hangs out for under two and a half minutes and looks at 1.86 pages. 

SimilarWeb only tracks desktop traffic, a shrinking proportion of the overall activity for both sites. But while the Post’s mobile website is more popular than the Times’s site, the opposite is true of their mobile apps. The Times’s app is the fourth most popular news app for iOS in the U.S., as measured by downloads, and the second-highest-grossing. The Post’s app is the 70th most downloaded news app and 23rd in terms of revenue. 

The question, then, is whether it's more fruitful to attract as many people as possible or dig your hooks deeper into the people you've got. To the extent that the business model of newspapers is based on advertising, bigger is necessarily better. But both the Times and the Post have been betting on subscription revenue, as well. While media companies of all sorts spent many years despairing that online customers would never pay for anything, charging for online content has become an increasingly common strategy. In that case, it pays to be your customers' absolute favorite. How the two newspapers are thinking about this is showing up subtly in the way they talk about their successes. On Monday, the Post put up a blog post heralding its "explosive growth" in overall traffic. Last week, the Times posted a flashy interactive feature showing which of its stories people spent the most time reading.