Published online 27 May 2005 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news050523-10

News

Life is short in online news

How long did it take you to find this story?

Live fast, die young: online news has a short shelf life.Live fast, die young: online news has a short shelf life.© Mark Peplow/Nature

Are you reading this more than a day and a half after it was posted on Nature 's news site? If so, it's a fair bet that either you've unearthed it from an archive or the article is unusually popular.

A team of scientists from Hungary and the United States has found that the majority of online news items have a lifetime of just 36 hours1. As reporters have always suspected, yesterday's news is stale, and the day before's news is invisible.

Zoltan Dezső of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and colleagues came up with the figure from an analysis of hits on Origo, Hungary's main online news and entertainment portal. They think it probably applies not only to other online news portals, such as this one, but also to other websites on which new items are posted regularly, such as online markets.

The researchers say that the result could help news agencies to determine how much impact their stories have, and how that depends on the online habits of their readers.

Chip wrapping

It has always been difficult to assess the lifetime and impact of newspaper stories, because it is hard to monitor buyers' reading habits. But working out which stories they read, and when, is easier for online sites that can log the hits for each news item.

Dezső and his colleagues collected such data for a single day on the Origo portal, during which time it released 3,908 news stories. On a typical day, Origo logs a total of 6,500,000 hits. The researchers looked at the relationship between the number of hits per item and the date the item was released, as well as the patterns of visits to the site by individual users.

Unsurprisingly, each item receives the most visits on the day it is posted, and the number of hits falls off rapidly after that. There is a daily rhythm because nearly all readers of the Hungarian site are in Hungary, so hit patterns are not affected by having readers in different time zones. After just three days, most people who are ever going to read the item have already done so. Even with an archive, online reporters cannot pretend they are writing for posterity.

Pitching stories

Dezső says that a typical user sees only 53% of the items before they disappear from the portal's main page, and actually downloads only 7% of them.

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Stefan Bornholdt, a physicist at the University of Bremen in Germany who has studied the statistics of online behaviour, suggests that news outlets could improve those figures by making story listings reactive, so that the most popular stories get pushed to the top automatically.

Of course, some news items do have lifetimes much longer than the 36-hour average. Will this be one of them? Will it have typical time history, or might it get picked up by popular blogs and given a new lease of life? Nature will monitor its fate and reveal the results in a week's time. Watch this space.