Online and offline newspaper readership

We’re all about helping publishers focus on creating and monetizing engaging content, and a big part of my job and the Chartcorps team’s job is helping them build their digital offerings as an expansion of their traditional print business. Thus, Neil Thurman’s study Newspaper Consumption in the Digital Age caught my attention. The report compares print and digital consumption of 12 UK-based newspapers, in terms of both circulation and time spent reading.

Among its findings was that in 2011 digital contributed only 3% of the total time spent reading these papers by their domestic audience (up to 7% for some of the papers), with their international audience contributing a sizeable additional 25.2 minutes for every hour spent reading by the domestic audience. The study also looked at trends from 2007-2011, finding that despite an increase in readership there wasn’t a related increase in reading time.

While this research brings interesting comparisons, it’s worth keeping in mind that the data has some major inherent limitations – all of which Thurman does address in the report.

Chief among them: the data for print reading time comes from reader surveys, while digital reading time uses Nielsen metrics for time on page – the former being subject to the inaccuracy of reader recall, while the latter doesn’t accurately measure true reading time (just clicks, page loads, and estimated time). And, as the two are very different measures, it’s tough to compare them or be fully confident in what insights to take back. Additionally, because of its methods, the Nielsen data also likely has an under-recording of reading at work or on shared computers, and does not include mobile app usage.

The reliance on surveys for that print data is unfortunate but necessary, as that’s the most clear way of getting data on normal offline reading. On the digital side, though, we have the power to really quantify reader behavior. It’s one of the biggest advantages to digital. And because we now have the technology to accurately measure user behavior in-browser to understand true reading time, I’m banking on this being a big part of the available pool of digital metrics in the future.

Despite the limitations of the data, the study does emphasize the problem facing digital teams in terms of holding their audience’s attention – a particularly scarce resource given the plethora of options available. But it also shows  there’s major room for growth and development of digital audiences, particularly as many newsrooms are now shifting to a digital-first strategy. And, for that to work, it’s important to understand your readers and present them with engaging content that matches what they’re looking for.

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