The past few weeks have seen some fairly dramatic moves by newspaper chains in both the U.S. and Canada, who have chosen to stop printing their papers on certain days in an attempt to save money. But in most cases this has been a result of what Ken Doctor has called a “forced march” towards digital, rather than a choice to embrace the online world at the expense of print. A single chart used by veteran internet analyst Mary Meeker in a presentation this week illustrates why that decision is so difficult: because print is still a massive source of advertising revenue. But the chart also shows why the print-based media industry is so afraid of the future — because that source is rapidly dwindling.
The chart is fairly simple: it shows the amount of time spent by users on various forms of media — including print, television, the internet and mobile — compared with the amount of money spent by advertisers on that medium. Although there are obviously areas of overlap (since most newspapers have websites that include advertising, for example) the magnitude of the gap between the amount of time spent on print media vs. the amount of money spent there is fairly dramatic. Even though people spend less than 10 percent of their time with newspapers and magazines, advertisers devote 25 percent of their spending to them.
Although the statistics Meeker uses for her chart are current, the overall trend is not new. In the version of the presentation that she did in 2010, for example, the analyst noted that about $50 billion worth of advertising was going towards print and other forms of “old” media when — based on the amount of time spent — it should be going to internet-based media (at that point, print was getting about 12 percent of the time spent by users, so it has fallen another five percentage points since then).
As that gap closes, who benefits? Probably not print
As Derek Thompson at The Atlantic notes in a post about the Meeker slide, you can look at the data presented there in a number of different ways, but arguably all of them are negative for print-based media. The most optimistic view of the gap between time spent and advertising dollars devoted to print is to see it as an indication that print is orders of magnitude more effective for advertisers than virtually any other medium — otherwise why would ad agencies and brands spend so much money there?
That is certainly the message that most print-based media outlets would like to spread, since it justifies their continued attachment to the medium. But just as likely — if not more so — is that advertisers have been slow to move their spending away from the traditional media they are used to and into new forms of content. But as Jeff Sonderman at Poynter points out, using another Meeker slide, they are picking up speed fairly rapidly.
One of the big factors keeping that trend from accelerating even faster is that there is still a lot of doubt in the industry about the effectiveness of social networks such as Facebook (s fb) when it comes to advertising. Certainly the performance of traditional methods such as banner ads on Facebook remains relatively dismal — even compared to the click-through rates on normal web advertising. The social network is experimenting with “sponsored stories” driven by user behavior, but there are still some large question marks around that as well, when it comes to the return-on-investment that advertisers are likely to see.
The fact that print still drives a massive amount of revenue for traditional media players also helps to explain why so many paywalls used by publishers like the New York Times are tied to Sunday print subscriptions or other print-related offers. In addition to producing revenue from loyal readers, those deals are also designed to protect the print-subscription numbers, so that advertisers will continue to feel they are getting their money’s worth. The multibillion-dollar question is: How much longer can print maintain that sense of superiority?