A new analysis of the most recent newspaper audience reports suggests a surprising split in reading habits. Digital audience continues to grow. Mobile audience is growing quickly. Mobile-only audience, though much smaller, has grown to 7 million.

Yet more than half of newspaper audience -- 54 percent as measured by Scarborough research in 150 large markets -- still read their local paper's news report only in print.

There is an important qualifier to that finding. The 54 percent may consume a substantial amount of national news on various digital platforms, but even with the growth of print + digital access subscriptions, they do not visit their hometown paper's website.

John Murray, the Newspaper Association of America's vice president of audience development, generated a number of other headline findings in his analysis published on the NAA site (members-only) earlier this month:

  • Total daily circulation was up 3 percent year-to-year and Sunday circulation 1.6 percent among 541 daily papers reporting results to the Association of Audited Media (AAM) for the six-month periods ending Sept. 30, 2013 and September 30, 2012.
  • The daily circulation gains were entirely driven by digital gains at the largest newspapers. Sunday gains also reflected the heavy use of "Sunday Select" products -- packets of inserts to non-subscribers -- by larger papers. At the great majority of newspaper organizations reported digital audience did not offset print circulation losses.
  • Print circulation continues to decline as a share of total circulation -- now 71.2 percent daily and 74.9 percent Sunday. A year earlier, print was 85 percent of the daily total. That is to say that the industry -- especially the largest papers -- is using changed AAM rules to substitute digital audience for print.

I wondered, given the much lower cost of digital ads, whether the substitution maneuver contributes to continuing print and total ad losses, roughly 6 percent in 2013 if recent reports by public companies are representative.

To an extent that is true, Murray told me in a phone interview, but perhaps not as much as the raw numbers would suggest. In the first place, advertising is concentrated in Sunday editions and a few weekdays. Sunday-only and three-day print subscriptions keep those numbers higher than an overall daily average.

Run-of-the-paper ad rates do not correlate closely with circulation declines. Pre-printed insert revenues do, Murray said, but advertisers have been accepting of the "Sunday Select" products as an equivalent.

Overall, Murray's paper concludes, these results show differing audience strategies, including discrepancies among papers in what they choose to count in their AAM reports: 

Newspaper readers are increasingly using digital products with the most substantial increases among the mobile platforms...The majority of newspapers are posting smaller declines in traditional print circulation (than national and other large papers). Most offer digital products to their readers that are similar to the largest newspapers, but they are not necessarily reporting use of these platforms in their AAM total circulation metric....

AAM circulation data is more insightful, expansive and transparent for individual newspapers due to changes in reporting rules. These changes also mean that using AAM “total circulation” as an exclusive metric across the industry is an exercise in looking at the sum of disparate parts. But a closer examination of the elements, supported by readership data, does confirm a steady transition to digital reach among newspapers and a healthy print readership base for readers and advertisers.

My takeaway is similar. The transition to digital and to mobile-only users continues to advance at a rapid pace. Indeed it has probably gone further by now than the studies in Murray's analysis suggests. The digital audience is younger and newspapers have it in their power, especially as they improve smartphone news products, to speed the growth of that share.

But remaining print readers, described by some as hardcore and by others as geriatric, are slower than I would have thought, to read a newspaper organization's report in both print and digital. The Scarborough report Murray highlights finds only about 30 percent of a given paper's audience uses both print and digital (versus 15 percent digital-only and 55 percent print-only).

You can look at that division from a half-empty or half-full perspective. I agree with Murray that print continues to hold a smaller-than it-once-was but well-defined, upscale audience. These readers are attractive to advertisers. As the success of increased subscription prices shows, they are also willing to pay more than newspapers had traditionally asked.

On the other hand, advertisers may be quicker to move, in whole or in part, to digital than newspaper readers. As digital-only options proliferate, advertisers most likely will continue to scale down print budgets, to pay for more of the new.