Consumer Time and Newspaper Readerships

Recently I was asked to look at the effect that consumer time (scarcity or ready supply) has on newspaper readerships.  We’re sometimes told that we consumers have less spare time than ever but we are also told we have more leisure time than ever too.  These are the briefing notes I came up with….

The Future Foundation tells us that people aren’t suffering from time scarcity any more than they used to – even if they think they are.

Some people are hard pressed for time, of course. Those in full time employment are taking on the work of their redundant ex colleagues. Britons work more hours than most of our European cousins. The term “Cash rich, time poor” emerged at the end of the last century and is in common use today.

On the other hand, labour saving devices, the Internet, cash points, online banking, retail parks, online shopping, downshifting and flexible working (the increasing number of part time workers are keeping unemployment figures low) have given Briton’s, as a whole, more ability to control their time.

What has happened is that we are using the extra freedom to lead more diverse lives, follow more varied interests and take advantage of more choice.

More choice comes from the increasing number of media outlets (national newspapers are an anomaly in that their number remains roughly unchanged in twenty years. The numbers of TV channels, radio stations and websites have rocketed).

Increased choice also comes from outside of media. Such changes as Sunday trading, extended licensing laws (bars open all day and longer into the evening), budget airlines (Britons see foreign holidays as essential nowadays), online gaming and many other emerging options chip away at our days.

By the 1990s The Henley Centre were talking about “Spider Lives” – the idea that people were using this spare time to explore new and varied activities and break away from traditional uses of time which were considered typical of their social class. Traditional pubs are on the wane, so are attendances of churches, clubs and political parties and so is the amount of time families spend on traditional ‘family time’. This happened in parallel to changes in the working world that also eroded traditional definitions of class.

Roy Greenslade wrote in 2009 that; “the most profound change since the 1980s, the period that marks the major circulation turning point for nationals, is the twin phenomenon of a fragmentation of society and a fragmentation of media”.

We simply fill our waking hours with more diverse, often stereotype busting activities. It is important to remember that this was happening long before the Internet came along and Greenslade’s point illustrates the fact that the ‘major circulation turning point’ was pre-Internet.

This isn’t just a youth (a digital native) thing. Take a look at print newspaper readers by age and you’ll see an upward curve with older groups reading printed papers more than younger ones. It seems to suggest the older groups have grown into their habit.

However, if you look at readership figures for 40 somethings reading newspapers ten years ago and compare them to the readership figures of 50 somethings now (i.e. the same people, to all intent and purpose) you’ll see they are reading less than they were – and moving to less regular reading. The same is true for today’s 60 year olds and 40 year olds and 30 year olds etc.

Subscription and loyalty schemes fight against the trend of less regular reading. Often subscription cancellations are less about the lure of rival newspapers and more about newspapers going unread.

The Internet has added a new dimension to this story of time and choice.

In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr demonstrates that the Internet makes us lazy because we know we can use it as a resource at any point. We know we can go there to find something out and that creates less of an imperative to read, learn and remember. This means newspapers and their websites have less ability to fight for people’s attention when there is so much else to do.

A good quote to illustrate this comes from David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who wrote this about the nature of the Internet, “I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more but then I realised that the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants – silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves”.

This ”laziness” theme is taken up in the Post Industrial Journalism report, written by the academics of the journalism schools in America. They make this point;

“Publishers also typically engage in horizontal integration, bundling hard news with horoscopes, gossip, recipes, sports. Simple inertia meant anyone who had tuned into a broadcast or picked up a publication for one particular story would keep watching or reading whatever else was in the bundle. Though this was often called loyalty, in most cases it was just laziness—the path of least resistance meant that reading another good-enough story in the local paper was easier than seek- ing out an excellent story in a separate publication.

The web wrecks horizontal integration. Prior to the web, having a dozen good- but-not-great stories in one bundle used to be enough to keep someone from hunting for the dozen best stories in a dozen different publications. In a world of links and feeds, however, it is often easier to find the next thing you read, watch or listen to from your friends than it is to stick with any given publication. Lazi- ness now favors unbundling; for many general interest news sites, the most common category of reader is one who views a single article in a month”.

So the story of time scarcity isn’t a simple one. People don’t always look time poor because they have time to take part in so many leisure and online activities. The story is about an increase in choice and the liberation of people from (or abandonment of) traditional behaviours.  It is also about laziness. Laziness was once on the side of newspaper companies and their many pages and supplements.   Now they are required to encourage consumers to fight their lazy instincts in order to continue to behave in a way that looks like loyalty.

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