Do mobile apps really hurt newspaper sales?

Opening up a new front in the paid content debate, News Corp heir apparent James Murdoch announced Friday that mobile apps are a threat to print newspaper sales.

Murdoch, News Corp’s CEO for Europe and Asia, said during the Monaco Media Forum that, “The problem with the apps is that they are much more directly cannibalistic of the print products than the website. People interact with it much more like they do with the traditional product.”

The comment made the rounds over the weekend. Portfolio, The Telegraph and Reuters, among others, picked up the story.

But I saw just one story that questioned Murdoch’s central premise and that noted News Corp has been leading the same fight against the Web. Reuters’ Felix Salmon wonders where the data is:

“For one thing, everybody thought that free websites were cannibalizing print newspapers, before we changed our minds. Rupert Murdoch, of course, was the loudest such person, saying that ‘an industry that gives away its content is simply cannibalizing its ability to produce good reporting.’ And so long as such statements are based on gut feeling rather than any kind of quantitative analysis, they’re pretty worthless.”

So where is the data? Fewer than 10 million iPads have been sold globally this year. Meanwhile, WAN-IFRA reports that 1.7 billion people read the newspaper every day. Tablet readership, in comparison, is still a drop in the bucket.

And even if we focus on one newspaper, for instance News Corp’s Wall Street Journal, I can’t see any “iPad effect” on print readership. In fact, though the Journal has a popular mobile app, the paper saw a slight bump in its weekday circulation this year.

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To be fair, Murdoch may have intended more nuance in his comments than has been reported. Tablets are more engaging for readers, especially in time spent, than the typical website.

But given some of the arguments Rupert Murdoch has made in the past, James Murdoch’s comments could just be a finely-tuned salvo designed to sway the paid content debate in News Corp’s direction.

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