Newspaper audiences in Canada remain strong, as evidenced by the latest release of Vividata earlier this year.

In the Vividata report, the Toronto Star posted a record high audience of roughly three million readers daily in the Greater Toronto Area alone, while the Globe and Mail posted a record national audience of just more than three million readers daily.

Of course the growth these days is coming from audiences accessing newspaper content digitally through smartphones, tablets, and computers.

Readers are not as likely to use as many devices in a single day as originally expected.
Readers are not as likely to use as many devices in a single day as originally expected.

It wasn’t too long ago that newspaper executives commonly held a belief that readers would access content on the various platforms over the course of the day or week.

A print reader might take 30 minutes in the morning to skim the print edition and perhaps check into the Web site on a desktop throughout the day. Then he might look at his mobile device for headlines over the lunch hour and spend a few minutes on his tablet to close out the day. A weekend-only print reader would access content digitally throughout the week.

Fast forward a few years and what we find is that newspaper audiences are becoming very sticky to a single platform. In short, they don’t interchange devices as we expected they would.

An early indication of this phenomenon for many publishers was the advent of the paywall. Publishers offered free digital access to their paid home-delivery subscribers expecting the majority of subscribers to activate their accounts to enjoy free access to the newspaper Web site.

However, the actual results have been surprising. Some markets have been able to secure subscriber registration levels in the fourth quartile, but many have only been able to secure subscriber registration levels in the bottom quartile.

In my conversations with publishers across North America, it appears in most cases print subscription registration levels for online access behind the paywall is well under 50%. Some are as low as 10%. The highest that I have come across is about 75%. 

Clearly not all print subscribers are interested in digital content from their daily newspaper.

Of course, there are exceptions to any trend. Some publishers have audiences using multiple platforms, and they firmly believe their readers will migrate to a digital platform. A great example of this is La Presse in Montreal, which has created a tablet edition and stopped its weekday print publication, leaving only a Saturday print edition.

When you look at global trends, the strong impact of language and culture becomes very apparent.

Publishers in Quebec, Norway, Poland, and even Germany have a language and cultural advantage in containing their audiences to their publications and products. Publishers in large, mainly English-speaking North American cities such as Toronto or Chicago have significantly more competition and their audiences have much more choice.

Another significant factor appears to be the subscription price of the printed newspaper. Those newspapers with a very high subscription price (US$10 weekly or higher) seem to have less readership duplication by platform than do those publishers with a lower subscription price.

That might reflect the idea that higher subscription prices may be pushing marginal readers to free or lower-cost digital alternatives.

This is important for publishers, especially those in regional markets. North America trends appear to be different for national or international plays such as The New York Times because it suggests we no longer can rely on a brand strategy to grow audiences. Rather, we must have specific strategies for each of the platforms in which we play.

Also, we will need to do it effectively and quickly. It won’t be enough just to create content and then expect audiences to be satisfied with only one version of that content.

Instead, it will need to be edited by platform, customised graphically, and include video support where required. Additionally, all this must be accomplished at a lower cost than we have become accustomed. 

Audiences remaining loyal to platforms does offer some positives for some publishers. 

In the near term, print circulation levels remain relatively stable, print readers seem to be willing to pay significantly for paper in-hand, and inserts still contribute significant revenues. Print has the ability to continue to contribute to fixed costs for some time.

Digitally, while there is clearly a move to mobile usage, desktop audiences still remain important, especially during the workweek and normal business hours.

When we look at tablet and smartphone trends, we see tablet penetration leveling off at just under 60%, with smartphone penetration in North America now in the 90% range. Tablets also have developed into a stay-at-home device, leaving the smartphone as the only true mobile device for the consumer.

Ultimately, all four platforms will remain important for the foreseeable future. It will be critical to have a strategy for each of them, clear audience accountability, and a business plan that reflects the reality of the marketplace.