Print news pros must wow e-readers to compete with TV

A recent slideshow and speech by Google chief economist Hal Varian titled “Newspaper economics: online and offline” lays out the grim realities facing print news professionals, including the following:

Newspaper ad revenue is where it was in 1982 in inflation-adjusted dollars . . . paid circulation per capita is half what it was in the 60s.

A key finding in his analysis of online versus print news readership is time spent on news consumption. The online reader spends about “70 seconds a day, while the average amount of time spent reading the physical newspaper is about 25 minutes a day,” Varian notes in a blog entry. “Not surprisingly, advertisers are willing to pay more for their share of readers’ attention during that 25 minutes of offline reading than during the 70 seconds of online reading.”

I ran into Varian last week and asked what this means for print news professionals who hope to gain more e-readers as print subscribers dwindle.

First, he said, most of that 70 seconds of online news consumption occurs at work, so newsies will have to  engage the audience into consuming more news on their own time. That means making online news reading more like the habitual leisure activity that it is for print subscribers.

How will newsies convince the audience that the electronic news product is worth more of their attention? Varian thinks this will entail adding multimedia elements to make online news more engaging and entertaining. “You’ll be competing with television,” he said.

What a tough transformation for shrinking news staffs whose incumbents have few multimedia skills.

Thanks to my friend Howard High for alerting me to Varian’s analysis.