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Newspaper companies are feeling the shift hard, as people go from reading print newspapers to getting their news and classified ads on the Internet. But if there’s one thing the Newspaper Association of America can hang their hat on, it’s that newspaper websites continue to grow their audiences and advertising revenues. So if people are not reading papers in print, at least they might be getting their news online from the same news source.

Though newspaper websites have been around for a decade, they’ve often been slow to innovate, and have been mainly used for “shovelware” — repurposing the same print stories online. But now, times are changing, and newspapers are perking up and realizing they’re going to have to do more online if they want to compete with the TV network and cable news sites, international newspaper sites, and aggregators such as Yahoo and Google.

So can these ink-stained dinosaurs do the Web 2.0 boogie? The Bivings Group, a Washington PR agency, recently studied the Top 100 American newspaper sites (ranked by print circulation, strangely enough) to find out which newspapers offered blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds, comments on stories, reader forums and even bookmarking features.

The following are some key findings from the report, which you can read in full here (PDF file).

Blogging is all the rage.
Out of the Top 100 newspaper sites, 80 of them have blogs. Of those 80 sites with blogs, 67 sites (or 83%) let readers comment on the blogs. The report singles out the Boston Globe’s massive blogging effort for encouraging “reader participation and interaction between reporters, journalists, and everyday citizens.” Blogging is so prevalent, that 9 of the Top 10 and 9 of the Bottom 10 newspapers offer blogs.

Podcasting is still a province of larger papers.
Unlike blogs, podcasts are employed by a minority of Top 100 newspaper sites — 31 of them. And the trend is much stronger on bigger sites vs. smaller ones. For instance, 6 of the Top 10 newspaper sites have podcasts, while only 2 of the bottom 25 have podcasts. The reason for that disparity might be because of the extra production required for podcasts vs. for blogs — plus the newness of podcasting.

Video offerings are widespread.
61 newspaper sites of the Top 100 offer video on their sites, which is a pretty strong number. However, The Bivings Group didn’t break out whether that video was AP video or original video shot by the newspaper staff, or even video submitted by readers.

Newspaper sites offer RSS — but not with full text or ads.
Out of the Top 100, 76 sites have RSS feeds and almost all of them offer feeds for particular sections of the site. But none of these feeds are full-text feeds and none of them have advertisements within the feeds. What’s up with that? The Bivings Group explains:

They are essentially using RSS like an email alert system: letting people know something new has been posted but still trying to push users to their own websites. Thus, while newspapers are using RSS, they are not yet allowing readers to read full text in their own RSS readers without visiting the newspaper’s site online. Perhaps newspapers fear that by using full RSS feeds and allowing people to read entire newspaper articles via this technology, fewer people will visit their websites.

Over time, it’s possible that newspaper sites might see the importance of offering full feeds with ads, as more people start using RSS feeds and prefer to read articles inside their news reader.

Forced registration is losing steam.
Only 23 of the Top 100 newspaper sites require people to register in order to read articles. That seems awfully low, and perhaps a sign that the sites don’t trust the veracity of people giving their personal information. Instead, the sites might rely on behavioral ads that are served according to the websites the person has visited recently.

Editors are not hip to reader comments on stories or bookmarking.
Only 19 sites allow readers to comment below each article, and only 7 sites offer either internal or external bookmarking features. The low number on reader comments is a strong contrast to the 63 sites that let people comment on blogs. This could be an issue of resources and the amount of time it takes to moderate comments on stories — or it could be the thin skin of reporters and editors who don’t want reader comments on their stories.

As for social bookmarking, that seems like a no-brainer for newspaper sites, as people bookmarking their stories would lead to more readers. Why not turn your readers into advocates and promoters for your best content? For instance, the Washington Post site allows people to save stories to del.icio.us, where others can see the stories you’ve bookmarked.

“Based on these findings and others, it seems that today’s newspapers are making a significant effort to reach web-focused audiences with mediums that are relevant to today’s virtual society,” concludes Erin Teeling of The Bivings Group on the firm’s blog.

True enough, but what could newspaper sites do better to help reel you in as a regular reader? What tools and technology do you think they should offer? Are newspaper blogs or podcasts important to you? Do you want original online content? Share your thoughts in the comments below.