October 25, 2011

The Tablet Revolution

Tablet News Users Have Strong News Habits on their Devices

The survey also looked more closely at the habits of those users who get news on their tablets at least weekly (77% of all tablet users). The findings may offer some encouragement to the news industry. For many, the tablet has meant more time spent with news, new sources for news and a better overall experience getting news. News consumed on the tablet has also, for many, become a replacement for news that used to be obtained through other platforms, which may well have both a positive and negative impact on the news industry.

A substantial number of tablet news consumers, three-in-ten, say they now spend more time consuming news than they did before they had their tablet. Only 4% say they spend less. A two-thirds majority (65%) consumes the same amount.

The prospect that a sizable minority of tablet users might be increasing the time they spend with news is also confirmed in two other finding. A third, 33%, say they have found new sources to turn to for news since they got their tablet. (Most of those new sources, incidentally, are also large, nationally known brands like USA Today and CNN and to a lesser degree, online only outlets like the Huffington Post.)

And those new sources do not appear to have supplanted old ones. Among the select follow-up panel (n=300 tablet news users), about half (52%) said they keep up with their favorite sources more now that they own a tablet. Just 3% said they follow their favorite sources less (44% said about the same).

Long-form News Reading – A Resurgence?

One of the challenges news outlets faced in the earlier periods of the transition to digital news was the dissatisfaction with the long-form reading experience on desktops, laptops and smartphones. Observers speculated that this might be tied partly to screen resolutions that were hard on the eyes, as well as a constant flow of competing information. In 2010, the average time spent on a news website was just 2 minutes and 30 seconds[2]. Many have hoped that the better interface offered by tablets would make long-form reading more pleasurable and thus more frequent.

The behavior of early tablet news users revealed in this study suggests some potential of that hope being realized. Along with spending more time with news on these devices, users are also going more in-depth in their consumption.

As has been found in news consumption habits more broadly, checking headlines is the most frequent type of news consumption on tablets. About half of the tablet news users check headlines regularly and another 30% do so "sometimes."  

But reading in-depth articles is not far behind. Fully 42% of tablet users say they regularly read in-depth news articles and about as many, another 40%, do this sometimes. This is about three times the rate at which tablet news users regularly watch news videos. (Some of the low video watching may be tied to the problems with Flash technology.)

When we asked a select group of 300 about their behavior during the last seven days, nearly as many had read long articles on their tablet as had checked headlines. Fully 96% got headlines and 88%, read long-form articles and analysis on their tablet in the last week. A small majority (53%) said they read long articles on their tablets at least once a day.

The tablet also either tied or outranked other platforms for both types of news.  

For headlines, these tablet news users were next most likely to turn to their desktop/laptop computers (88% checked headlines there in the last seven days), followed by television at 81%. Printed publications (68%) and smartphones (67%) trailed further back. There were, though, large divides by age.

For reading longer articles the tablet tied with the desktop while 71% had turned to printed publications for this news content and 50% had used their smartphones.  

Magazine Reading – More Popular for Tablet Users than the Population Overal

The survey also asked specifically about magazine reading. While not one of the most popular activities on the tablet, 22% of tablet users report reading magazines of some kind on their tablet at least weekly. While the 22% refers to magazine reading of any kind, that is still more than twice the percentage of the general population that regularly turn to a news magazine in print or online (8%) and seven times percentage of the general population who said that of specialty magazines like the Atlantic.[3]

One question is what effect the tablet would have on people going back to look at past stories from a magazine. Would people access past issues more, taking advantage of easier access to archives that the tablet might offer? Or would they be less inclined to read old issues because those copies were not physically present-on the coffee table or nightstand-as a reminder that they had been set aside? For some magazine publishers, the notion that older issues were still read, weeks after their publication date, was part of the "value" perceived in the publication.

While there is no comparative data to reveal whether the reading of past issues has increased on the tablet, the signs here may be positive for the industry. A sizable number of tablet users do read past issues of magazines electronically. Close to one-in-four tablet news users, 38% reads previous magazine issues on their tablet devices. And 14% of those say they do so more often than before they had their tablet. Print publications, though, still have some holdouts. Of the 62% of tablet news users who do not ever read back issues of magazines on their tablet, one-in-three, 29%, do so in print.

Even with these holdouts, though, the message about reading magazines seems a positive one. It may be coming back as these heavy internet users find it a better experience on the tablet than on desktop, laptops or small screen smart phones.

A Replacement for Desktop Reading

One challenge for the news industry is to understand and manage the degree to which the tablet will take the place of news consumption that had been occurring on other platforms. Even as the internet, primarily accessed through desktop computers, broadened access to the content of legacy print newspapers, it also triggered a business model crisis for the industry, as users flocked to the free version of what they once paid for. Ad revenue tumbled as well, as media companies traded analog dollars for digital cents. To what extent are these new tablet devices further reducing legacy circulation? Is it likely to have the same kind of negative economic impact, or are there signs of a potentially more positive outcome?

Among the early adopters surveyed for this study, there is indeed a good deal of substitution occurring. Not all of this may raise as much concern as it did in an earlier era. The greatest substitution is occurring with news that people used to get from their desktop computers. Fully 79% of tablet news users say they now get news on their tablet that they used to get online from their laptop or desktop computer. But a majority of tablet users, 59%, also say it takes the place of what they used to get from a print newspaper or magazine. A similar majority, 57%, say they substitute the tablet for television news.

When asked specifically about the longer articles and analysis they had read on their tablet over the last seven days, the replacement effect was confirmed. More than three-quarters, 77%, of those we followed up with in the Web-based survey, said nearly all or a fair amount of their long-form reading on their tablets over the last seven days was reading they would have done on the desktop/laptop. Nearly two-thirds, 63%, said this of print.

If news organizations are more successful at finding a way to reap revenue in the tablet environment than they have on the internet more broadly, the movement toward tablet consumption could be quite promising. The likelihood of that, though, is uncertain at best (see News Valued but not for Pay). And the further movement away from print and television suggests that news companies have little time to find that new economic model before the revenue from their legacy platforms completely dries up.

One positive sign, as discussed earlier, is that the substitution does not seem to be cutting down on the overall time tablet users spend consuming news, including long-form articles and analysis. Nor is it keeping people from coming across articles they had not originally set out to read. Nearly nine-in-ten (88%) of those who read long articles in the last seven days ended up reading ones they were not initially looking for. This was the case for both browser and app reading.

And 41% of tablet news users who read longer articles in the last seven days went back and read past articles or saved articles for future reading.

 


[2] The 2 ½ minutes calculation is based on an average of the top 25 news sites according to the Nielsen Company. Averages were drawn across the first three quarters of 2010.

[3] "Americans Spending More Time Following the News; Ideological News Sources: Who Watches and Why," The Pew Research Center’s People & the Press, September 12, 2010, http://www.people-press.org/2010/09/12/americans-spending-more-time-following-the-news/.

Cite this publication: Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project Staff. “The Tablet Revolution.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (October 25, 2011) http://www.journalism.org/2011/10/25/tablet/, accessed on July 23, 2014.