Twin Cities newspaper readers are increasingly going digital. A new report by the industry-supported trade group Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) shows that growing numbers of Pioneer Press and Star Tribune readers are paying for digital editions.
It’s a good news-bad news tale, though. While both papers are among the national leaders in digital editions, a closer look at the numbers could put a damper on any celebration.
The Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune rank Nos. 15 and 16, respectively, in the number of digital editions they circulate daily. That’s good. As readers turn away from print, getting people to pay for news online is the crucial challenge facing the newspaper industry.
But let’s examine what kind of digital content Twin Cities readers are using.
The Pioneer Press reports circulation of more than 67,000 digital editions a day. That’s 34 percent of its total circulation. However, the vast majority of its digital circulation is in the form of a “digital replica.”
Rather than viewing the newspaper’s website or using a mobile app, 83 percent of the people receiving a digital edition of the Pioneer Press are getting a custom online product that exactly mimics the look and layout of the physical paper.
The story is similar at the Star Tribune. The Strib reports circulation of nearly 66,000 digital editions a day, amounting to 22 percent of its daily circulation. And of the group getting digital editions, 72 percent receive the digital replica product.
Compare that with the New York Times, the industry leader in digital circulation. Nearly 900,000 people get a digital edition of the Times. That’s 56 percent of the paper’s total circulation. But of those who read the Times in pixels rather than on paper, fewer than 2 percent choose a digital replica.
I suspect that the Twin Cities readers choosing the digital replica are older people who want the convenience of reading the paper online, but the familiarity of the print layout they’ve long been accustomed to.
If that’s the case, then the boomlet in digital editions still isn’t reaching the younger demographic – the “digital natives” who are critical to the survival of newspapers in the future.
Other data in the AAM report lend credence to my suspicion.
The industry figures for paid smartphone and tablet apps are pitifully small. Of the nearly 2,000 daily and weekly newspapers covered by the AAM, only five have sold more than 1,000 smartphone apps. On the tablet side, only four newspapers – three in New York and one in San Francisco – have sold more than 20,000 tablet apps.
If you assume that smartphone and tablet apps would tend to reach younger readers, then newspapers at this point haven’t yet closed the deal with digital natives.
Newspapers have made great strides in recent years toward understanding the need for serious digital revenue. But they’ve still got a long way to go.