The 2012 RJI Mobile Media News Consumption Survey brings some interesting mileposts on the evolution of mobile news use, but to me it seems to raise some questions too.
In a post at poynter.org, Jeff Sonderman writes that certain results of the survey “makes tablet readers seem the best hope for print publishers that want to make a digital transition based on paid content.” Along with a finding that tablets are strongly favored for news consumption by people over 35, Jeff highlights three findings of the survey:
“More than half [52 percent] of the mobile news consumers who said they used their large media tablet most frequently for news also subscribed to a printed newspaper and/or newsmagazine. …
“Those who said they use their large media tablet most frequently for consuming news also are much more likely to subscribe to digital news products than those who said they use their smartphone most frequently for news. …
“About 60 percent of owners who favored large media tablets consider their experience consuming news on their tablets better than reading a printed newspaper.”
Among the questions I have is whether print news organizations should be focusing on where their current audience is or where the potential audience is – and that’s a question that goes back decades.
Among people who already subscribe to newspapers or news magazines, and who are over 35, tablets are a strong favorite – but if you focus on going after that group, what about the people under 35, who much more strongly favor using their smartphones rather than a tablet (57 percent vs. 28 percent)?
Smartphones also are nearly ubiquitous – owned by 92 percent of mobile news consumers, compared to the 40 percent who own tablets.
Maybe if your mobile site is good, it doesn’t matter, but I haven’t heard that the industry is approaching the point where most mobile sites are considered to deliver a good experience. Until then, the few news sites that are good would seem to have an advantage in building a reading habit among a larger segment of the potential audience, leaving the industry still relying on a shrinking portion of the population.
A focus on the tablet also could simply reinforce the old print newsroom habit of tailoring the work toward a particular time of day – except with tablets it is evening instead of morning. Smartphone users are roughly equally likely to check for news at various times of day, while half of tablet users wait until evening.
Ultimately, this may come down to whether you think news will (or should) wind up primarily supported by subscriptions and some type of paywall or will (or should) remain largely free and supported by advertising. If the former, the ready niche – of older, presumably better-off readers accustomed to your style of product – is tablets.
But even if that’s the better path in the short-term because it based on paid content now, not the promise of something uncertain later, it’s less of a digital transition unless your theory is that it is the best way to convince stubbornly print-oriented editors and publishers to begin tailoring their work toward a tablet-based digital audience, and that from there it then would be easier to get to an all-digital orientation from there than from where they are now.
7/11/12 UPDATE: I think my own view comes closer to what the deputy publisher of TPM expressed in May to Nieman Journalism Lab:
“We’re giving a lot of thought to three different kinds of consumption: Active consumption being at the desktop, on-the-go consumption being on your mobile phone, and passive consumption being in your bed, on your tablet, something like that.”
7/13/12 UPDATE: I’d like to see more studies of the effects of paywalls on demographics, but one from Our Hometown about what happened to the online audience of the Times Record in Brunswick, Maine (that link goes to a PDF), should give everyone pause: When the paper’s website was free, the average age of users was 43, but after a paywall went up the number of young site visitors dropped off a cliff and the average age rose to 59.