Newspapers' online audiences are growing rapidly, according to a new industry study, highlighting a key growth area that newspapers are seeking to exploit as print circulation continues to be challenged.

A study being released Monday by the Newspaper Association of America, a trade group, found that one in three Internet users — 55 million — visit a newspaper Web site every month.

Also, unique visitors to newspaper Web sites jumped 21 percent from January 2005 to December 2005, while the number of page views soared by 43 percent over the same period.

The study coincides with the NAA's annual convention in Chicago. Top of mind for the publishers attending was the looming sale of 12 Knight Ridder Inc. (KRI) newspapers by The McClatchy Co. (MNI), which is acquiring the storied publishing company in a $4.5 billion deal that will reshape the landscape of American newspapers.

Strategies for coping with the rapid transformation of consumers' news consumption habits due to the Internet was also a big topic at the three-day conference, which began Sunday.

Andrew Swinand, executive vice president at Starcom Worldwide, a major advertising-buying agency, said during a panel discussion that newspapers could do more to harness their presence online, such as getting more participation from audiences.

Swinand also said his firm would like to buy advertising across newspaper Web sites but had difficulty doing so, and had to go through third-party vendors. He also said it was difficult to buy both print and online advertising through newspapers, and that the process for fulfilling newspaper ad sales was cumbersome and less automated than in other media.

Swinand did say afterward that he was still "bullish" on newspapers' online advertising potential, but added that newspapers should do more to personalize and localize their online content, in ways such as the social networking site MySpace does.

In other topics, executives from The Sun in Baltimore, the head of news at E.W. Scripps Co. (SSP) and the head of online media at McClatchy discussed another big pending issue for newspapers: how to integrate print and online news operations.

Having new people come in with fresh ideas was key for newspapers as they develop their online operations said Mark Contreras, Scripps' vice president of news operations.

Those people are likely to devise new initiatives over the next few years that will "save our bacon," he said.