New research finds 92 percent of time spent on news consumption is still on legacy platforms

Here is a surprising statistic from leading consultants McKinsey and Company: When you measure news consumption in the U.S. by time spent, rather than raw audience numbers, digital platforms are getting only 8 percent of the action.

McKinsey data show 35 percent of news consumption remains in newspapers and magazines, 16 percent in radio and other audio, and 41 percent television. Smart phones and tablets each account for 2 percent of time spent and desktop/laptop 4 percent.

As the chart below indicates, total time spent on the platforms yields a very different picture. Digital devices get slightly more than half of total media time -- about 10 times more than newspapers and magazines. However the extended time news consumers spend with print -- compared to short sessions on digital -- multiplies its share sevenfold when only news consumption is considered.

The proprietary research, not previously published, was part of a presentation that McKinsey principal Michael Lamb gave to the INMA World Congress in New York a few weeks ago.

The finding, and even the attempt to measure time spent, was novel enough that I tried to answer several questions for this post.

McKinsey and Company.

How did McKinsey come up with these numbers?

Kevin Roche, who directed the research from the company's San Francisco office, told me by phone that several sources came into play. The company drew on other studies and some observational consumer research of its own. But the most significant input was from data provided by many different clients as part of consulting engagements.

The calculation of time spent does not delve into the "second screen" phenomenon, Roche said, so if a user was watching the television news and simultaneously checking news on a digital device, each activity would count as time spent.

Researchers I spoke with had contrasting reactions. The multiple sourcing could be considered a strength, since simply asking consumers to estimate time spent has not been especially reliable. On the other hand, the company would need to weight various findings, making the numbers inexact. Also its black-box, proprietary methodology makes it next to impossible for others to evaluate the results.

Are the findings plausible? Are people really still spending that much news time with legacy media? 

While the numbers sound high, they are probably right or close to right. Gary Meo, who directs Scarborough's newspaper research, said that his company has not tried to measure time spent, but that the results "don't sound like they are far off."

Newspaper readers "lean back," as the current lingo goes, and probably spend 20 to 40 minutes over morning coffee or catching up in the evening. The legions of NPR listeners could easily log an hour of commuting drive time getting news that way. Television, while it may not get undivided attention, is on for long periods.

By contrast, many studies have found that quick checks during working hours make up a big share of online traffic. Smart phones also support a quick summary style of news consumption. Pew research and others find tablet users spending more extended time with newspaper and magazine apps, especially during evenings. But not everyone has these devices yet, and many are not using them to consume news.

I was unable to find much comparable research. Starting in 2004, Ball State's Middletown Media Studies observed participants directly and found they spent more time with media, especially television, than they had themselves estimated. But the Ball State researchers, Mike Bloxham and Michael Holmes, told me in a visit to Poynter some years back that while isolating news consumption would be a worthwhile exercise, they had not attempted it.

Nieman Lab's Martin Langeveld took a stab in a controversial 2009 post at the related question of how much consumption of newspaper content, measured by time spent, was in print vs. digital. His estimate was 96-97 percent print.

If McKinsey is right, are mobile news products getting disproportionate attention?

Not really. Lamb, in his INMA presentation, offered the stats to show that the notion that "mobile is taking over the world" is mostly hype for now, at least as far as news is concerned. But his larger point was that news producers should redouble and speed up their efforts to develop strong news products.

Mobile-centric and mobile-exclusive news consumers are small groups -- but growing, Lamb said, and winning products need to be tailored to their news preferences and be marketed effectively.

I heard the same when I questioned mobile developers. They recognize that news apps often get only cursory attention, especially on smart phones, and the clock is running on getting stronger news products in front of smart-phone enthusiasts (typically younger people who will add to the audience for legacy media).

Cory Bergman, general manager of NBC's Breaking News and a member of Poynter's National Advisory Board, made the case in February that mobile will disrupt journalism over the next several years and development of mobile news products should be pursued aggressively.

What are the implications for old media?

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.

Time-spent statistics also fortify the notion that with fewer pages, newspapers and magazines need to be sure that they continue to produce strong content that commands mind-share and extended reading sessions among print consumers.

On the other hand, impressive time spent with print news does not by itself solve the basic advertising problem of vanished monopoly pricing power and strong competition from a wide range of targeted digital marketing options.

I don't want to oversell the McKinsey findings. Those shorter digital sessions may be a more efficient way of consuming news and also lead to participation via comments and social media -- a better experience for many now than passive reading alone.

But I also think unique monthly visitors and page views have been flawed metrics yielding big numbers that may mask light engagement. Giving more emphasis to research that illuminates time and attention to various news platforms would strengthen the case for the print half of print + digital -- and for the relevance of TV and radio news consumption as well.


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