Why focusing on ‘time spent’ with print misses the point about how the news works now

Newspaper

According to some research from the consulting firm McKinsey and Co., so-called “legacy” publishing and broadcast platforms like newspapers and TV networks still account for more than 90 percent of the time that consumers spend getting their news. That’s a somewhat surprising figure — one that seems to suggest that much of the doom and gloom about the death of print is overstated.

It would be wise not to read too much into those McKinsey numbers, however: virtually all of the available evidence shows media consumption in print continues to decline, particularly with younger audiences, and as a result advertising revenue is disappearing as well. Media companies need to adapt to that fact, rather than trying to pretend it isn’t happening.

According to a post by Rick Edmonds at the Poynter Institute, the research came from a presentation by McKinsey principal Michael Lamb at a recent conference of the International News Media Association in New York. Lamb said that based on data from a number of sources, about 35 percent of the time consumers spend on news consumption is devoted to newspapers and magazines, while TV accounts for about 41 percent and smartphones and tablets account for only about 2 percent.

In other words, the research seems to show that while digital devices account for more than half of the total time that consumers spend with media in general — and about 10 times more than the amount of time they spend with newspapers and magazines — the amount of time they spend with “legacy” platforms expands dramatically when looking specifically at news consumption.

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Time spent is not the only important metric

Although Edmonds notes that there isn’t much research out there to confirm McKinsey’s conclusions (apart from a Nieman Journalism Lab post in 2009 that saw Martin Langeveld try to dig into some readership numbers for newspapers), he says that other researchers he contacted thought that the numbers were probably “not far off” — in part because of the “lean back” form of consumption that print media involves, where users often spend hours with a cup of coffee and a paper.

Edmonds also argues that encouraging advertisers to look at these kinds of time-spent numbers might help newspapers and magazines improve their appeal, since time spent is a big factor in where advertisers spend their money. As he puts it:

“The time-spent metric suggests that there is more life in legacy formats than raw audience numbers and falling print ad revenues would imply. Since the ‘dying industry’ meme is part of print’s problem with advertisers, this could be incorporated in a case for the medium’s continued relevance.”

Unfortunately for publishers who might see this as reason for unbridled optimism, however, Edmonds goes on to note that the time-spent numbers “do not solve the basic advertising problem of vanished monopoly pricing power and strong competition from a wide range of targeted digital marketing options,” and that while users may spend less time overall with digital platforms when consuming the news, these shorter digital sessions “may be a more efficient way of consuming news.”

For most, the news occurs elsewhere

Prismatic mobile

I think Edmonds puts his finger on one major problem: namely, the fact that for many news consumers, the “lean back” experience simply isn’t necessary any more. As research from the Pew Center has shown, large numbers of consumers are getting their news from aggregators such as Google News or Yahoo News — or possibly from newer solutions such as Prismatic and Circa and Flipboard — because they don’t have either the time or the inclination to go to a single newspaper source, or read in print. Is a lack of efficiency really a selling point for legacy print publications?

That’s not to say the “lean back” experience doesn’t still have value for many news and media consumers, but the other painful fact is that most advertisers aren’t specifically looking to advertise to news consumers — they want specific demographic segments or topic-specific shoppers, or other kinds of targeting that legacy publishers can’t offer, and they want engagement or “time spent” across a range of content types, not just news.

As Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker has repeatedly suggested in presentations about the evolution of the digital-media marketplace, advertisers are moving to where the puck is going to be — not where it is now. And according to virtually all of the available evidence, even from McKinsey itself, that means mobile and social and other platforms, not print. Publishers can either try to convince advertisers that they are wrong about this move, or they can try to adapt to it.

Meeker print vs mobile ad spend

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Arvind Grover

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