Will tablet owners be willing to pay for news?

25 Oct 2011

The iPad

Consuming news ranks as one of the most popular activities on tablet computers, which are now owned by 11pc of US adults. Half of these get their news on tablets every day, but will they pay for it, ask the Pew Research Centre and The Economist.

Eighteen months after the introduction of the iPad, 11pc of US adults now own a tablet computer of some kind. About half (53pc) get news on their tablets every day, and they read long articles, as well as get headlines. But a majority says they would not be willing to pay for news content on these devices, according to the most detailed study to date of tablet users and how they interact with this new technology.  

Consuming news (everything from the latest headlines to in-depth articles and commentary) ranks as one of the most popular activities on the tablets, about as popular as sending and receiving email (54pc email daily on their tablet), and more popular than social networking (39pc), gaming (30pc), reading books (17pc) or watching movies and videos (13pc).

The only activity people said they were more likely to do on their tablet computers daily is browse the web generally (67pc).

The survey also finds that three out of 10 tablet news users (defined for this study as the 77pc of all tablet users who get news at least weekly) say they now spend more time getting news than they did before they had their tablets. Just 4pc say they spend less time while two-thirds (65pc) spend about the same amount of time.

A third (33pc) of tablet news users say they are turning to new sources for news on their tablets, sources they had not turned to on other platforms, such as television or their desktop computer. And, more than four in 10 (42pc) say they regularly read in-depth news articles and analysis on their tablets. 

Tablet news users also say they now prefer their new devices over traditional computers, print publications or television as a way both to get quick news headlines and to read long-form pieces.

But will users pay for their content?

This is a question that is vexing every media owner. Last week, The Guardian revealed that within just one week the new Guardian iPad app achieved 145,880 downloads in one week and it is estimated that this could top 1m after a month. The Guardian will offer free daily downloads of the tablet version of its newspaper for the first three months after which time it hopes people will pay a subscription.

Whether people will pay for content, though, still appears to be a challenge, even on the tablet. Just 14pc of these tablet news users have paid directly for news content on their tablets. Another 23pc, though, have a subscription to a print newspaper or magazine that they say includes digital access.

Thus, the percentage of these early tablet news users who have paid either directly or indirectly for news on their tablets may be closer to a third. That is a much higher number than previous research has found more broadly of people paying for digital content.

Still, a large majority of those who have not paid directly for news on their tablets remains reluctant to do so, even if that was the only way to get news from their favourite sources.  

These are some of the findings of the study, which probed at three different levels the behaviour of 1,159 tablet users and 894 who consume news on their tablets weekly.

One reason early tablet adopters may have integrated the devices so significantly into their daily lives is tied to the demographic profile of the tablet-owning population. In general, they are middle-aged, higher-income, working individuals who follow the news more closely and more frequently than the population overall.

How tomorrow’s consumers will consume news

The study also finds that these early users turn to the internet as their main source for news much more frequently than the public overall, and they have a strong preference for reading and listening to news rather than watching it – again, much more than the population overall. Fully 71pc of tablet users prefer reading and listening versus 45pc of all US adults.

The study reveals that, so far, while about two-thirds of tablet news users have a news app on their tablets, the browser, carried over from the desktop experience, is still the more popular means of consuming news.

A plurality of tablet news users (40pc) say they get their news mainly through a web browser. Another 31pc use news apps and the browser equally, while fewer, 21pc, get their news primarily through apps.  

There may be reason for news organisations to continue to develop and promote their news apps, however. Those tablet news users who primarily use apps for news are the most avid consumers of news on tablets. They consume news more heavily, and in more different ways. They also report higher levels of enjoyment and learning from their news experience.

The revenue potential for news on the tablet may be limited. At this point, just 14pc of tablet news users have paid directly to access news on their tablets. Another 23pc get digital access of some kind through a print newspaper or magazine subscription. Still, cost is a factor, even among this heavy news-consuming population.

Of those who haven’t paid directly, just 21pc say they would be willing to spend $5 per month if that were the only way to access their favourite source on the tablet. And of those who have news apps, fully 83pc say that being free or low cost was a major factor in their decision about what to download.

Whether an app comes from “a news organisation I like” is as prevalent a factor in the decision to download an app as is low cost. Liking the news organisation is a major factor for 84pc of those who have apps. In addition, among both app and browser respondents surveyed about their behaviour over the last seven days, the most common way by far to get news headlines was by going directly to a news organisation’s content.

Fully 90pc of app users went directly to the app of a specific news organisation, compared with 36pc that went to some sort of aggregator app, like Pulse. And, 81pc of those who went through their browser accessed news headlines via a direct news website, compared with 68pc who went through a search engine and about a third (35pc) that went through a social network.

Tablet Revolution by Pew Research

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years