Eighteen months after the introduction of the iPad, 11 per cent of US adults own a tablet computer. More than half use the device to get news, but a majority is still not willing to pay for news content, according to a study of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in collaboration with The Economist Group.
The findings are bad news for the $30 million gamble Rupert Murdoch took nine months ago, when News Corp launched The Daily, a “newspaper” exclusively for the iPad. The idea was to have content for a tablet device that would not be available in the same form in print or online.
“In the tablet era, there’s room for a fresh and new voice,” Murdoch said at the launch of The Daily. “The iPad demands that we completely reinvent our craft.”
The subscription cost, at 99-cents per week or $39.99 for the year, appeared at first glance not too steep either.
“No million dollar presses, no trucks and we’re passing on that savings to the reader,” Murdoch said.
To break even, The Daily is said to need approximately 500,000 subscribers, but in October 2011 the news service had only 120,000 active readers and of those 40,000 were on a non-paying two week trial.
Although The Daily publisher Greg Clayman said typically 15 per cent of the people who sign up for a trial are turned into subscribers, the figures leave the publication a long way off its target.
Are tablet owners turned off by the product, which is heavy on graphics and features mainly short news items, rather than the platform or are they at this point just not willing to pay for news content?
Tablets and news
According to the Pew Research Center study most tablet owners use it every day and just over half use it to get news. A third of those say they are turning to news sources that they did not use on other platforms such as TV or desktop computers. And more than four in 10 (42 per cent) regularly read in-depth news articles and analysis on their tablet.
Most importantly tablet users say they prefer the device over traditional print media, TV or computers both to have access to quick news and to read longer articles.
Yet paying for access to this content still seems to be an issue. Only 14 per cent of tablet users have paid directly for news content on their tablets. Another 23 per cent have a subscription to a print newspaper or magazine that provides them also with digital access. In all the number of tablet users who have paid for news content, either directly or indirectly, is therefore closer to one third.
While this is a larger share than previous research has found, a large majority of those not paying for news continues to be reluctant to do so, even if that was the only way to get news from their favourite sources, the study said.
Meanwhile, the potential for the tablet device to substitute other news sources is apparent in that nine in 10 tablet users say that they consume news on the tablet that they previously accessed in different ways, mainly their laptop or desktop (80 per cent), print newspaper or magazine (59 per cent) or TV news (57 per cent).
Who are the users?
Tablet owners, the study found, are generally middle aged, higher income working individuals who follow news more closely and more frequently than the general public. The early adopters of tablets tend to turn to the Internet as their main news source and have a strong preference for reading and listening to news rather than watching it, much more so than US adults on average. This is surprising given that tablets have so far been mainly associated with video and other visual animation content.
No apps please
Another result of the survey is that tablet users do not actually prefer apps to get access to news content. For content providers apps have the advantage that it is easier to charge for access, but it was also thought that users would prefer dedicated apps from their preferred news organisation.
As it turns out, while about two-thirds of tablet users have a news app on their device, the traditional Internet browser continues to be the most popular way of news consumption. Most tablet owners (40 per cent) use web browsers to get their news, 31 per cent use both the web browser and news apps and only 21 per cent use apps exclusively to consume news. However, news app users tend to be the most avid news consumers and consume news more heavily and in more different ways, the survey results show. About half of this group say they now spend more time getting news than they did before they had their tablet (42 per cent). That is more than twice the rate of those who mainly go through a browser (19 per cent).
In addition to the finding that only 37 per cent of tablet users pay for news content, either directly or indirectly, the study showed that cost is an important factor even for people who have an above average interest in news. 83 per cent of tablet owners who use news apps said the low cost of an app or that it is free of charge was a major factor when deciding what to download.
Only 21 per cent of those who do not pay for news content said they would be willing to spend $5 per month, if this was the only way to get access to their favourite news source on the tablet.
Brand still important
The preference for news organisations that tablet users “like” is still relevant on the tablet and a major factor for 84 per cent of those who have apps. This is most obvious in the result that when scanning for news, dedicated apps (90 per cent) or websites (81 per cent) of a specific news organisation are much more popular than news aggregator apps or websites or search engines.
This is in spite of the unique opportunities that tablets offer in the form of aggregator apps such as Flipboard or Zite, which pull together web content in a magazine-style layout based on user customisation or reading habits to personalise the delivery of news content.
Magazine sales disappoint
Similar to the result of The Daily, magazine sales on tablet computers have been largely disappointing. For some time this was due to the policy Apple had for selling magazine subscriptions but since the introduction of Newsstand the visibility of available magazine products has improved markedly.
Journalism think tank Poynter blamed the sluggish sales on the high cost of individual magazine issues compared to subscription products, the large download size of up to half a gigabyte for Wired’s first issue, as well as the lack of innovation in the market. While initially magazine apps offered a new user experience for instance in terms of animated graphics or interactive covers, apps have now become quite homogenous with the same features, just different content. According to designer Joe Zeff, publishers are merely competing with themselves by attempting to push the same content to as many devices as possible. The digital product for tablets should be truly different from the print product, he argues. Otherwise sales figures would continue to disappoint.
Despite the success of the iPad it is only one device among a growing number of platforms, including Android tablets and phones and the newly released low-cost Kindle Fire tablet, which media executives hope will push tablet usage and news consumption via tablets further into the mainstream. If successful, a change in consumer behaviour can be expected as it already emerges that tablet owners are more willing to buy using the device than PC users.