Blog Post

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

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.


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

5 Responses to “Why focusing on ‘time spent’ with print misses the point about how the news works now”

  1. Martin Langeveld

    Interesting that this question is still getting knocked around.

    When it comes to ad revenue, however, it’s not a question of “time spent” or “engagement” with the media in question, and it’s not a question of “where people get their news”. As we used to train our ad salespeople: you are not selling advertising, you are selling customer traffic into the store. (This echoes Gordon’s point above.)

    What would be interesting is a rigorous study by some national retail chain that also has a strong online sales operation — Walmart or Home Depot, let’s say. What would happen if they tested several different trackable sales promotions, over several seasons, in similar sets of markets, where one group of markets gets nothing but print ads, one group gets nothing but TV, one group gets nothing but online, one group gets nothing but radio, etc. — and then later various media combinations are tested as well — with the same amount of dollars spent in each market per promotion.

    I’m guessing they’re already doing this kind of testing, but keeping the results proprietary.

  2. Always get a chuckle out of time-spent analyses. Everyone seems to forget one medium when doing this: Yellow Pages. People spend miniscule amounts of time with the yellow pages, yet it’s still a $6 billion industry. Granted, it’s not a “news” medium, but it illustrates the point that the value of time spent with media is related much more to the value of the audience. People also seem to forget that when it comes to online media, advertisers are seeking consumers, not readers. That’s why three-fourths of the top 20 local online media companies have nothing but advertising or advertising services as their content. (If anyone wants to see the chart illustrating this, email me at [email protected]. It’s eye-opening.

  3. is this right ….. 35% of time spent on news consumption with newspapers & magazines…..7% of media consumption with print.

    doesn’t this ALL point to the fact that most time everywhere is on entertainment, and that internet entertainment time is sucked up with social (high time/low ad engagement) and video (high time/tv like ad engagement/ still priced too high)

    i’m NOT defending print, at least not in isolation, but i’m driven crazy by ‘the internet’ being defined as a single thing. the segments we’re talking about here matter a lot.

  4. Keith Hawn

    For the billionth time…The Holy Grail search continues on…

    Time spent won’t ever equal ad spend because:

    >>> digital creation, distribution and media is CHEAPER than the equivalent “spot” on traditional media

    OK, sorry for the interruption – back to your fantasy lives now….

  5. Matthew great article and finally the discussion is turning to targeting but I do have one to challenge you on one point that you make. “they want specific demographic segments or topic-specific shoppers, or other kinds of targeting that legacy publishers can’t offer” .

    This is not true because audience segmentation has been going on for years in the area of pre-prints via ZIP based segmentation as well as retention/acquisition programs (Leap Media Solutions). Obviously the next place is online audience segmentation via DMP (Lotame). There is a challenge that media sites are news specific but that can be overcome by buying third party cookie data to round out the audience interest.

    The evolution of the paywall will create a robust poll of data to link online audience to physical address to complete the audience segmentation life cycle. Allowing media companies to market segmented audience instead of mass audience.

    Missing is the current supply chain is how to offer that audience to the advertiser in a streamlined seamless approach that covers all the various channels that media companies offer their content on. I believe that will develop over time. Thanks.