Behind the surge in mobile news users
Growth in devices has led to more on-the-go news readers
October 2, 2012
With nearly half the population now owning smartphones and almost quarter owning tablets, getting news via mobile device is no longer a novelty. In fact, at times it appears inescapable. But what’s interesting is that it’s not cannibalizing users’ appetite for news from traditional sources of media. That’s the finding of a new study from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which found that people are using their mobile devices in addition to, and not instead of, other platforms for news. Sixty-four percent of tablet owners and 62 percent of mobile phone users employ their devices to get news at least once a week. Half of tablet news users say they also get their news in print, while 77 percent say they also get news online via a desktop or laptop. Twenty-five percent said they get news on all four platforms. Mobile news users are also noting the accompanying ads: 49 percent of tablet users and 50 percent of smartphone users say they sometimes or often notice ads when they get their news on the devices, and 15 percent report clicking on them. Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, talks to Media Life about how mobile audiences differ from non-mobile ones, what type of news mobile users are most likely to look at, and why people are still using these devices mostly at home.
What's the most interesting or most surprising thing about this report?
I think the first thing is that we have reached a threshold point in mobile. More than half of Americans now have mobile connection to the internet. And that is only likely to grow. This has major implications for news, for advertising, for how we shop, and how we interact.
For most Americans, the internet is now with us wherever we are.
What's the most important thing media buyers and planners can take from it?
The first thing is to understand whether advertising on tablets works differently than advertising on smartphones and how these relate to desktops.
One thing we find is that the audience is not a monolith. There is a mobile audience that wants a print-like experience, with ads that are mostly visual rather than interactive, and there is a new digital audience that wants the advertising to work differently.
There is also a difference because the tablet and the smartphone are not distracted or multi-tasking devices in the same way that a desktop might be. At work, on a desktop, you may be juggling many tasks, from email to word processing, to talking on the phone and more.
The tablet, which is a news consumption device more heavily used at home, may be more intimate. It is held in your hands, in your lap. And we are just beginning to learn what that means in terms of interaction.
What we do know is that people consume news on these mobile devices, and they spend a lot of time on them, and that this news and magazine consumption is adding to the amount of time and news they consume, not replacing it.
Why are tablets adding to, rather than replacing, how much news people consume?
I think there are several reasons.
One is convenience. You wake up in the morning, or sit on the sofa in the evening, and you now have the internet in your hands. It is easier, and it can happen instantly, rather than going outside to get the paper, or going to your den to sit at the computer.
We also know from our research that news is a social activity. People get news in part, often in significant part, because they enjoy talking about the world around them with family and friends. I think when that happens, and people have a smartphone or tablet in their hands, they go deeper.
Questions come up. They answer them, whether it is video of what a politician did, or some stats about the game, or reading a story about the day’s events. It is right at hand.
What is so interesting is that the more devices people have, the more they are simply adding this consumption to their days. They spend nearly equal amount of time on their desktops getting news as their tablets. And if they own a smartphone, that time is nearly equal. And if they get a print newspaper or magazine, that time is roughly equal as well.
More devices, more platforms, simply equates to more consumption.
What sort of news are people most likely to look at on tablets? Why?
The data suggest that mobile is a fairly immersive experience. By that I mean, people check headlines and then read longer stories. They often read several longer stories when they do this. And they do it on smartphones as well as tablets.
This suggests that people are using mobile technology first to see the top stories, to see what, if anything, new has happened. Then they find stories that interest them and dig deeper. This is in many ways a very traditional kind of news experience, much the way people might read a newspaper.
There is also a social media component here, for younger users especially. A quarter of people are using these devices for social media on a daily basis. Some of that involves news as well, if you click on links that your friends send you on Twitter and Facebook.
Why aren't people fully taking advantage of all aspects of mobile technology, i.e. getting news outside the home? How long do you think it will take to change that?
Through time, news consumption has tended to be habitual, no matter the medium. Some people prefer news in the afternoon and watch local TV. Others are morning news consumers and prefer the morning paper or the early shows. Some people like the 11 p.m. news. That goes back a long time. So it is not entirely a surprise that with new devices people would create new habits, even if the potential is there to get news continually.
The fact is people are busy living their lives, being moms, dentists, lawyers, teachers, and they fit news consumption into their routines. There is a cohort of people, we used to call them news junkies, who just love news. They are taking advantage of the technology, and they are taking advantage of many platforms.
I suspect that group may get larger and also may splinter into different sorts. But for many of us, I think news will continue to be something that we consume at prescribed times.
Why aren't more people subscribing to digital publications?
Digital subscriptions are fairly new, for the most part. I think the limited nature of them doesn’t necessarily predict how we will behave down the road. We used to not pay for television. That changed. So I think it is hard to say. The metered model is having some success. Just how that should work, and where, is still evolving.
And there is still a debate among content producers about whether to move to subscriptions or not.
I think this is going to be a marketplace decision. But anyone who thinks that the marketplace has already decided is probably jumping the gun, just as the people who argued that “the internet wants to be free” or that “information wants to be free” were ascribing human motivations to non-human entities.
Are you seeing a shift in the type of tablets people own as they become more ubiquitous? Why?
Yes, we are seeing a shift, and I suspect this is just starting. A year ago eight in 10 tablets were iPads. Now that number is just over half. Twenty-one percent of tablets are Kindle Fires. The market will change as new tablets are introduced, with new capabilities, new sizes, and as content producers begin to understand what kinds of content works on what screen sizes.
We’re still at just 25 percent penetration nationally for tablets, and they are still relatively expensive items. There was a time when we thought of cell phones primarily as phones. There was a time when we thought of PDAs as largely for email, phone and calendar.
Why is the distinction between apps and browsers becoming less important?
At the dawn of the tablet, some in the media world thought people would pay for apps but not for general access. Part of that thought was that apps would have higher resolution and better interface than HTML.
Now HTML has advanced to new levels and metered subscriptions have begun to gain momentum they didn’t have two years ago. It may be a matter in time of preference, or the distinctions may disappear altogether.
I suspect there are many people who have bookmarked icons on their tablets and aren’t sure whether it is an app or a browser version they are opening. In the end, the quality of the content, and the experience, is probably what will matter. But we are seeing that people who like apps, and what they can do, are the most avid users and the most avid news consumers in mobile.
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