updated 1/27/2009 4:52:22 PM ET 2009-01-27T21:52:22

Leading U.S. newspaper Web sites are getting more visitors, and those visitors are coming more often, in what might be a small bright spot for an industry struggling with declining revenue.

However, those visitors aren't spending much time on the newspaper Web sites. They averaged slightly more than a half-hour at the top 10 sites during all of December.

The latest figures from Nielsen Online underscore the struggles that newspapers still face with how to translate their audiences into revenue. So far, online ads aren't generating enough dollars to offset losses from print, where ad sales worsened last year because of the recession.

"Unless you can grab a greater share of people's attention, you cannot hope to sell that much advertising to them," said Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Outsell Inc.

According to Nielsen, 40 million people in the United States visited at least one of the top 10 newspaper sites in December, a 16 percent increase over the previous year. The New York Times remains the top newspaper site, with 18 million unique visitors in December, an increase of 6 percent. USA Today and The Washington Post follow.

Nielsen said visitors were returning more often. Each visitor came, on average, 6.3 times in December, compared with 5.8 times a year earlier.

"People who have become news consumers have become much more aggressive news consumers," said Jon Gibs, vice president for media analytics at Nielsen Online.

But while heavy news consumers are spending more time at the sites, those sites also now get a lot more casual visitors. That makes the average visit relatively brief. The average time spent at the top 10 newspaper sites in December — 32 1/2 minutes — rose just 2 percent from the same month in 2007.

And that 2 percent increase lags the 9 percent hike in time spent at all leading news sites, which include broadcasters' sites and news sections at portals like Yahoo Inc. and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL. In unique visitors, MSNBC, Yahoo, CNN and AOL all were ahead of The New York Times.

In a ray of hope for the industry, Gibs said, newspapers are extending their reach to people who might not have bought the printed edition before — such as people discovering a site when friends pass along a link to a specific article. Even if the visit is casual, he noted, it still marks an opportunity to display an ad.

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