The Pew research centre last week published a story about how workers at the Boston Globe were drafted in to deliver newspapers after problems with their distributor meant that local residents hadn’t received their paper copies. The story was a reminder to author Michael Barthel that there is still a print reading audience out there. In fact a look at previously collected Data from the Pew Centre suggests that around half of (American) newspaper readers only read the print version.
‘Data from Pew Research Center and other sources show that around half of newspaper readers consume newspapers only in their printed form. In our study of the local news environments in three markedly different U.S. metropolitan areas, nearly or about half of readers of the local daily paper in Denver (46%), Macon, Ga. (48%), and Sioux City, Iowa (53%) did not access the paper online. These findings are similar to the 56% of newspaper readers in a national survey who said their only contact with a newspaper was in print’.
Some examination of the figures provides a profile of paper only readers. Bartel describes them as an older audience of ‘news enthusiasts’ who are more likely to watch local TV news. They are less likely to have gone to college, have a lower average income compared to online readers and are less likely to be civically engaged.
Barthel worries about the impact on this audience should the newspaper print market cease to exist;
‘Even in the digital age, home distribution remains a key link between newspapers and their readers. And should the print product become a thing of the past, evidence from these three cities suggests that the impact would be felt disproportionately by about half of their audience – indeed, a particularly vulnerable contingent at that’.
Frédéric Filloux provides a more positive story about how a traditional print paper recently went digital in his Monday Note this week.
Filloux looks at Canadian daily newspaper La Presse, which has been planning its recent move to digital for the last five years;
‘For La Presse, the epiphany came with the 2010 launch of the iPad. “We immediately saw it as an industry game changer”, said Yann Pineau who holds the title of “Continuing Improvement Manager”. Then, all battleship turrets rotated in the same direction: a complete transition to digital for one of Canada’s oldest media properties’.
Extensive research pointed La Presse towards maintaining the traditional reading pattern of its audience. Rather than streaming constantly updated breaking news it publishes a single edition every morning which is unchanged throughout the day. Having chosen not to put up a paywall, the digital paper has also been careful to build a positive advertising strategy;
‘To assess reader tolerance to ads, tests were conducted with combinations of promotional formats. La Presse had one goal at the forefront of their mind: avoiding the economic absurdity of the web and its unlimited supply of advertising space. They went for the opposed direction, which is to recreate some form of scarcity, as in television. The numbers of pages of a daily edition —the “screens” in La Presse+ parlance— varies in accordance to the advertising load: The app holds about 60 screens on weekdays, twice that for the Saturday editions and its ten sections’.
Filloux thinks the model has been successful for La Presse, but says it’s not replicable everywhere. Whilst the digital version seems to be financially viable, data shows a plunge in the average age of reader; findings which seem to support some of the worries of the Pew Centre previous article.
In their different ways, both these stories point to there being something of a growing separation between the digital and the print audience. The key to survival for both forms will surely be in understanding the needs of a publication’s own audience and responding carefully.