Survey: iPad Newspaper Apps Could Slash Print Subscriptions

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Wasn’t the iPad supposed to save print journalism? A Reynolds Journalism Institute survey of 1,600 iPad users this fall says that more than half — 58.1 percent — of print newspaper subscribers who devote about an hour a day reading news on the device are “very likely” to cancel their print subscriptions within six months. But that could change if the price of accessing their newspaper apps were higher. Still, as the NYTCo (NYSE: NYT) prepares to put its digital content, including its revamped iPad app, behind the metered paywall next year, and companies like Gannett (NYSE: GCI) debate whether to keep its USA Today app free, the study shows how far publishers might be able to go in terms of getting readers to pay more for their content.

In the survey conducted online from September through November, 931 respondents described themselves as “heavy news” readers.

The most common answer provided when asked what was the chief reason they decided to get a newspaper app on their iPads: because it was it was cheaper than buying a print subscription. Ease of use and access to interactive features were mentioned a lot less.

As for the iPad newspapers that have reached their expectations, the obvious ones came up most: The New York Times (soon to be behind the paywall), USA Today (still free — for now), The Associated Press (free), and The Wall Street Journal (paid since day one).

iPad beats browser: The survey also suggests that if the NYTimes.com’s metered paywall is successful in getting “heavy users” of its digital content to pay, the iPad will play a big part in driving readers to do so.

About nine out of 10 of those who self identify as heavy readers of news on the iPad — an hour or more daily — said they are either very likely (71.8 percent) or somewhat likely (21.2 percent) prefer the app experience to the newspaper sites. When the notion of selling iPad apps for pretty much the same content that was available for free through the iPad’s Safari browser, many observers scoffed. Still, newspaper website reading is becoming more often related to breaking news items or users coming through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and blogs, or through searches. By their nature, heavy news readers are a minority of a site’s traffic.

Most news readers get their news across a variety of media. Still, RJI says there is a direct correlation that the more someone uses the iPad for accessing news, the less they rely on printed newspapers. Other highlights from the survey (available here):

— About three-quarters of the respondents implied that they had used an iPhone. Of those, about 70 percent indicated that they had used it to consume news during a typical day. About two-thirds implied that they had used a smartphone other than an iPhone. Of those, about 50 percent indicated that they had used it to consume news during a typical day.

— More than three out of 10 (30.6 percent) respondents do not subscribe to printed newspapers. Another one out of 10 (10.7 percent) said that they had already canceled their subscriptions to print newspapers and switched to digital editions on their iPad.

The findings will be discussed at RJI’s Tablet/E-Reader Symposium and Digital Publishing Alliance meeting Friday, Dec. 10, from 2:15 to 3:15 p.m. CST. You should be able to find the live webcast here.

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