The readers have spoken: You can pry their newspapers from their cold, dead hands.
By JACK SHAFER
Print is the past and online is the future, as all can attest. But a new study by Neil Thurman indicates that print isn’t quite prepared to surrender to online. According to Thurman’s research, a whopping 88.5 percent of the total time U.K. readers devote to 11 national newspaper brands—Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Mail, Mirror, et al.—is spent on the print edition. Only 7.49 percent of reader time goes to mobile and a mere 4 percent to PCs.
Guardian readers spend 43 minutes a day on the print version and only 0.68 minutes on the online version. Readers of The Mail spend 39 minutes on print versus 2 minutes to the online edition. And so on down the list. “U.K. national newspaper brands engage each of their online visitors for an average of less than 30 seconds a day, but their print readers for an average of 40 minutes,” Thurman writes.
Are the Brits just slow readers? Nope, says Thurman, who drew on a year’s worth of data: “Time spent reading print newspapers doesn’t vary much country-to-country, and neither do online dwell times.”
Thurman’s work follows the research of University of Texas scholar H. Iris Chyi, who criticized the newspaper industry for splurging on online editions when real profits remain in the fading print product. In correspondence, Thurman points to a Deloitte study that found that 88 percent of the newspaper industry’s revenues comes from print, making time spent reading and money collected a near percentage match. Like Chyi, Thurman thinks newspapers need to rethink resources they’ve allocated to online editions. He believes his research should raise questions about the wisdom of the online expansion of U.K. newspapers to nondomestic markets: Both the Guardian and the Mail have taken their product to the United States and elsewhere. The Guardian, which has invested deeply in its online editions, reported declines last summer in its digital revenues. In the fall, it announced that it would cut 30 percent of its U.S. staff.
The study butters the toasty feelings for print that I expressed last year. As convenient as a smartphone may be when you want to sneak a nibble of news or gather a few sports scores and the weather report on the fly, for a genuine reading experience, nothing yet beats ink on paper. It’s telling that Thurman found smartphones outperforming PCs for reader time, indicating perhaps that if people are going to sit and read they’d rather do it on something other than a monitor.
If readers find newspapers so absorbing, why do media types burn endless talk on the tens of millions who visit their online sites? “Our website has 15 million uniques a month!” they say. “Oh, yeah? Our website draws 22 million!” What they’re thrilled about is “reach,” which Thurman defines as a “measure of whether someone has been exposed to a media brand but [that] tells us nothing about how much attention they paid to the content.” Yes, gillions of unique browsers make touch-and-go landings and on lots of websites, but most of them move on before absorbing any of the content or partaking of the advertising messages.
Thurman’s findings help reframe the rise of online and the decline of print as a debate between the number of “readers” and the actual time spent reading. The reach vs. time spent debate, says Thurman, “matters in an era of multi-platform media brands and consumption when reaching someone online often means a fleeting engagement against the deeper encounter permitted by print.” When it comes to newspaper news, the print product is walloping the online version in terms of reader engagement.
Everybody accepts that newspapers have been bleeding circulation for the past decade, but the continued devotion of the readers to print even though they charge high prices compared to free or at least cheap websites remains an under-told story. Writes Thurman, “[T]he metric of time spent reveals an inconvenient truth about newspapers’ online experiment.” Given all the developer money spent on developing news for smartphone users, it’s a bit of a shock to discover how little time that large audience invests in the format.
Online still outperforms newsprint in many vital areas. It’s superb at breaking news and boutique news, and it remains the cheapest and easiest way to publish. But Thurman’s paper, along with Chyi’s findings, provides fresh ammo to the debate about print’s future that’s been raging since 1993, when novelist Michael Crichton famously predicted in Wired that not only newspapers but mass media would be dead in 10 years. Newspapers, it seems, are always dying. But thanks to their loyal readers, who hold them tight and long, they refuse to die.