During a presentation in front of the Federal Trade Commission yesterday, Google's Chief Economist painted a picture of a newspaper industry whose demise was caused by a number of sources, not just the Internet.
That goes contrary to what newspaper executives have been saying for some time: that the Internet and, in particular, news aggregators like Google have
been giving away content that newspapers used to be able to charge for - both in subscriptions and ad revenue. In a blog post
, economist Hal Varian explained that his testimony is part of the FTC's exploration of the future of the news industry.
It's the same old song-and-dance in that blog post and in Varian's statements in Washington today: Newspaper readers gave up dead-tree versions of yesterday's news and replaced it with a web browser that offered real-time, around-the-clock news with the click of a mouse. Blah blah blah. We've heard it all before. But, if you're truly interested, the blog post offers a lot of statistics on trends in news and advertising.
What caught my eye in Varian's post was the mention of tablet computers - he specifically named "the Kindle, iPad and Android devices" - as devices that might encourage readers to curl up with the newspaper, er, I mean, tablet device on a comfy chair. You see, newspaper readers used to spend time with the newspaper, about 25 minutes a day. By contrast, the average amount of time spent with online news is about 70 seconds per day. He wrote:
There's a reason for the relatively short time readers spend on online news: a disproportionate amount of online new reading occurs during working hours. The good news is that newspapers can now reach readers at work, which was difficult prior to the Internet. The bad news is that readers don’t have a lot of time to devote to news when they are supposed to be working. Online news reading is predominately a labor time activity while offline news reading is primarily a leisure time activity. One of the big challenges facing the news industry is increasing involvement with the news during leisure hours, when readers have more time to look at both news content and ads.
When I read that, I immediately pictured my dad back in the day. He would come home from work and, as part of his unwinding, would plop down in his big comfy recliner and open up the newspaper. (We used to get the evening edition of the paper back then so the news itself was still pretty fresh.) These days, he's also reading news online - but rarely is he sitting down on the sofa to open his laptop.
I never could picture a guy like him - or me, for that matter - sitting down to leisurely take in the day's headlines over the small screen of a mobile phone. But I can imagine him sitting there holding a tablet computer of some sort, touch-screen-scrolling from one site to the next to read stories of interest. Is that enough to save newspapers? Probably not. But it does offer some hope that it can spark more interest in online news reading. From the post:
Online news access on handheld device like cell phones and tablets is likely to be quite different from traditional newspapers reading, with much more multimedia content, interactivity and reader involvement. The transition to a fully online news will be difficult, but there's a good chance that we will emerge with a significantly more compelling user experience. Also see: News on mobile phones is growing; Newspapers get second chance Sergey Brin: Newspapers can still prosper but need time to "figure it out"