When The New York Times released its earnings report this week, most of the immediate attention was on digital: The Times added 276,000 net new digital subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2016 — its best quarter since 2011, when it first launched its paywall.
But all of those new digital readers — and an increase in digital advertising — still weren’t enough to make up for a decline in print advertising: The Times’ print ad revenue fell 20.4 percent in the quarter and was down about 16 percent for the full year.
That same-old story is one to keep in mind as you read a new paper, “Newspaper Consumption in the Mobile Age,” from Neil Thurman, professor of communication at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. Thurman looks at time spent reading 11 daily national newspapers in the U.K. and found that “of the time spent with newspaper brands by their British audiences, 88.5 percent is still in print with just 11.5 percent online” — and that in-print figure is actually driven down a bit by the fact it includes The Guardian and The Daily Mail, “whose audiences spend 77.6 per cent and 74.7 per cent respectively with their print editions.” Take out those two publications, and “the other nine newspaper brands in the sample rely on the print channel for over 95 percent of the attention they receive.”
Although newspapers have spent decades investing in digital distribution, their online channels are not attracting anywhere near the levels of attention commanded by their print editions, even though those print editions have been suffering falls in circulation for decades and are offered at a premium price.
This is, of course, U.K. data, and Thurman lists a few caveats — he looked at newspapers’ own websites and mobile apps, and the study doesn’t account for “time readers of newspapers spend viewing…externally displayed content” pushed out through “email newsletters, SMS alerts, social media platforms, RSS feeds, and even messaging services such as WhatsApp. Some [newspapers’] content may also appear on aggregating websites and apps like Google News and Flipboard.” In many cases, papers are simply linking back to their own sites, in which case those views are counted in Thurman’s data — but he acknowledges that “examining the time spent with these various external digital channels would provide a more complete picture of audiences’ engagement with newspaper brands online.” Still, adding in these external views might not budge the time-online figure up by all that much (when was the last time you opened Flipboard?).
Also, the print time-use data (but not the digital) that Thurman relies upon is self-reported — a survey asking “how long do you usually spend in total reading or looking at [the publication] by the time you’ve finished with it, including all the times you look at it and all the parts and sections?” — and such data has been criticized in the past for overestimating actual time reading. (People love to give people answers that make them look good.) He also relies on “readers per copy” data that, at least in other industry settings, are sometimes hard to believe. And by limiting itself to British audiences, the paper ignores any potential returns from, say, the large Guardian and Daily Mail audiences overseas. (Presumably, British audiences spend a lot more time reading The New York Times and The Washington Post online than in print.)
The picture probably isn’t that different in the U.S. Back in 2009, media analyst Martin Langeveld crunched the numbers for us
and suggested that only about 3 percent of newspaper reading took place online. You can quibble with his math — as many of our commenters did at the time — but more recent Pew research suggests that “around half of newspaper readers consume newspapers only in their printed form
While data like Thurman’s is interesting to have, it’s arguably not going to change newspapers’ strategies much: If print advertising is disappearing, what are they really do but continue to move forward online? “The value of The New York Times does not depend on conveying information in the forms that made the most sense for a print newspaper or for desktop computers,” the authors of the Times’ 2020 Report wrote last month, and said, “We should reorganize the newsroom to reflect our digital present and future rather than our print legacy.” That’s the path most papers are taking now. Thurman’s findings certainly stress that it could be unwise to rip print papers out of readers’ hands, but it’s unlikely to change much otherwise.