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April 13, 2009, 11 a.m.

Print is still king: Only 3 percent of newspaper reading happens online


All generally accepted truths notwithstanding, more than 96 percent of newspaper reading is still done in the print editions, and the online share of the newspaper audience attention is only a bit more than 3 percent. That’s my conclusion after I got out my spreadsheets and calculator out again to check the math behind the assumption that the audience for news has shifted from print to the Web in a big way.

This exercise was prompted by recent posts by John Duncan of Inksniffer, in which he argues that “internet metrics substantially exaggerate the importance of the newspaper web audience.” Duncan (who seems to have revived Inksniffer from a long dormancy with a series of math-heavy posts during March), provides calculations supporting his conclusion that  in the UK, online sites have only 17 percent of the page impressions delivered by printed newspapers.

Let’s examine how this looks in the U.S.  First, print impressions: The NAA’s research shows a “daily” (Monday through Saturday) print audience of 116.8 million, and a Sunday print audience of 134.1 million.  (This is much higher than paid circulation, but there are 2.128 readers per daily copy, and 2.477 on Sunday.)

We don’t have clear data about the average number pages each member of that audience looks at, but let’s make an educated guess: 24.   That translates to about 87.1 billion printed page views per month*. As a check on our assumption of 24 pages: based on annual newsprint consumption of 9 million metric tons, the industry prints about 190 billion pages (a mix of tabloid and broadsheet sizes).  So we’re assuming the average reader looks at about half the pages published, which seems reasonable.

Now the online side, where we have a more accurate measurement:  NAA reports the daily newspaper online audience as measured by Nielsen in both unique visitors and page views.  For 2008, it averaged 3.2 billion online page views per month. (There’s no readers per copy multiplier there, on the assumption that nearly always, there’s just one pair of eyeballs per online page view.)

So, U. S. daily newspapers deliver a total of 90.3 billion page impressions per month, print and online.  The online share of these page is only 3.5 percent — 96.5 percent of page impressions delivered by newspapers are in print.

Another massage of the numbers, this time in terms of time spent:  The NAA’s Nielsen numbers say that the average unique visitor to newspaper web sites spends about 45 minutes per month.  So with a unique visitor audience that averaged 67.3 million during 2008, newspaper web sites were viewed a total of 3.03 billion minutes per month.

How much time was spent with printed newspapers?  NAA doesn’t offer a study providing an average, nor can I find one elsewhere, but I’m going to use 25 minutes Monday-Saturday and 35 minutes on Sunday. **  Multiplying this out, we get 96.5 billion minutes per month spent with printed newspapers.

So in terms of attention span, newspapers hold readers a total of 99.5 billion minutes per month, of which only 3.0 percent is online. This correlates nicely with the pageview split.

So whether you look at page views or time spent reading, only around 3 percent of newspaper reading happens online.  I’ve made a few estimates along the way to reach that conclusion, but only a drastic and unwarranted change in my few guestimates would change that result signficantly.

Is it any wonder then, that online revenue is stuck at less than 10 percent of the print revenue?  Given the online share of audience attention, 10 percent looks high, actually.  Let’s explore that revenue dimension further by comparing print and online CPMs.

Online, in 2008, NAA reports total newspaper site revenue of $3.109 billion; total page views of 38.726 billion.  Online revenue per 1000 page views (CPM): $80.28. (That should raise your eyebrows, because if there are maybe three ads on the average page, it means the average ad is selling for more than $25 per 1000 views, which would be off the charts for most sites.  I don’t buy that number, but that question is the subject for more research and hopefully a future post.)

On the print side, NAA reports 2008 revenue of $34.74 billion.  Dividing that by 12 months and 83.6 billion printed pages per month, we get a print CPM of $34.62.

Does this make sense?  Is it possible that newspapers are managing to demand and obtain an online pageview CPM that’s 2.3 times their printed page CPM?  Are the online sales teams that much better than their print colleagues?  Or, dare I say it, is it possible that newspapers assigning, by accounting maneuvers, a disproportionate share of their revenue to their online divisions, for example when they arbitrarily assign to online a percentage of the revenue in combination print/web ad packages, or credit a revenue share to online revenue in instances where advertisers are merely bonused online exposure as added value to a print buy?

The fact remains, of course, that not only is online revenue alone insufficient to sustain news operations, but the print operations of our larger newspapers, having lost most monopoly pricing power, are not sustainable either, recession or no recession.  Finding a solution for these industry problems demands careful monitoring of where the audience is actually spending its time and attention.  While the audience’s online attention seems to be a surprisingly low 3 percent, online is clearly where the audience is migrating to.  In my mind, as I’ve written pretty consistently since last September, the solution is an online-print hybrid in which print is consolidated to one, two or three editions per week, not seven.

POSTSCRIPT, Tuesday April 14, 7:30 a.m.: Dan Thornton at The Way of the Web, has posted some very relevant cautions and caveats to this analysis (but calls it “a good reality check”) and some of the commenters have raised fair questions about the legitimacy of the data.  I’ll continue to disagree with those who say in effect, “I don’t see any newspapers being read by two or more people, therefore it doesn’t happen.”  I too, know many reporters and editors who don’t read their own paper in print, but of all the data I used, the Scarborough research on readers per copy is the longest-running, most consistent survey, and its results cross-check with “read yesterday” survey data.

As I’ve noted in the comments, I’ve made two assumptions based on scanty information (minutes spent reading print, and number of print pages read).  But even if I’ve overestimated those by 100 percent or 200 percent, the analysis still reaches the same conclusion, which is that within the limits of newspaper readership in print and online, the public still reads newspaper content in print by an overwhelming margin.  The attention drift is toward online reading, but it’s not as rapid a drift as most of us have been assuming.  Is this good news?  No, because as pointed out by  in the comments, the print-side problem is not readership, it’s advertising, particularly the loss of monopoly pricing power in most categories.  And of course, non-newspaper sites are grabbing a big slice of the migration of attention online.

I want to emphasize that this analysis was limited to newspapers and newspaper sites as input to that industry’s ongoing search for business models that work.  Any individual newspaper or newspaper group has at their command internal data to repeat this analysis more accurately for themselves, and I’d encourage them to do so.  There has been a tendency in the industry to inflate the significance of unique visitors. As noted by Josh Benton in the comments, 100,000 monthly unique visitors on the site is not nearly the same as 100,000 print subscribers, but you can find such statistics conflated into equivalence on everything from ad sales materials to 10-K reports.  What the industry really needs to do is to develop a valid, independently-audited measure of audience attention.  Who knows, it might even help them sell some print advertising.

FOLLOW UP / RELATED POSTS:  I have more to say on this general topic in two followup posts:


*Method: Multiplying daily readers times 313, Sunday readers times 52, adding the results, multiplying by 24 pages read, dividing by 12 months.

**According a print newspaper “engagement” study presented a few years ago, on weekdays 45 percent of readers spent more than 30 minutes, 34 percent between 16 and 30 minutes, 21 percent under 15 minutes.  Sunday time is higher.

Photo by Dustin Diaz, used under Creative Commons License.

POSTED     April 13, 2009, 11 a.m.
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