Mobile news audience grows despite circulation declines

By Gary Meo

Nielsen Scarborough

New York


The Pew Research Center reported last week that daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) in the United States declined 8% in 2016 compared to the previous year. Hardest hit, of course, was print circulation, which was down an estimated 10% on weekdays and 9% on Sunday.

These findings should not be surprising to anyone, as newspaper circulation has been declining in the United States for years.

What may be surprising to some, however, is that even as more and more Americans consume news and information on digital devices, digital circulation growth is relatively flat for most U.S. newspapers. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post are notable exceptions.

An increasing number of people are accessing newspaper content on their mobile devices.
An increasing number of people are accessing newspaper content on their mobile devices.

While the circulation news is disheartening — especially since circulation revenue comprises a larger percentage of overall revenue for many newspapers — the picture may not be as bleak as it looks on the surface. News media companies are building audiences across multiple channels and, for some newspapers, audiences may be larger today than they have ever been — despite declines in circulation.

At Nielsen Scarborough, we measure newspaper audiences, which is different from circulation. Circulation is the number of newspapers or subscriptions sold. Audience is the number of adults who read newspaper content. It’s papers (or pixels) versus people, if you will.

When you examine the audience story, bright spots of audience growth can be found. And one of the brightest spots is the audience that accesses newspaper content using mobile devices.

According to Pew’s Mobile Fact Sheet, 95% of Americans own a cell phone of some kind, and 77% own a smartphone — up from 35% in 2011 when Pew started measuring smartphone ownership. Also in 2011, Nielsen Scarborough started measuring the number of U.S. adults who read a newspaper on mobile devices (phone or tablet) in the past 30 days. That number grew from 9% in 2011 to 25% in 2016.

In our most current national study, more than 61 million U.S. adults age 18 or older have accessed newspaper content on a mobile device in the past 30 days. This is a welcome growth story for newspaper audiences.

Another positive aspect of this story is the value of the mobile audience in terms of demographics and consumer behaviour. They are younger, better educated, better employed, and earn higher annual household incomes than the average U.S. adult.

U.S. adults who have read a newspaper on a mobile device (phone or tablet) in the past 30 days have a median age of 39, versus 48 for the U.S. adult population as a whole. This audience group:

  • Is 16% (index 116) more likely than the average U.S. adult to be a college graduate or better.
  • Is 51% (index 151) more likely than average to be employed in professional or managerial positions.
  • Has a median annual household income is nearly US$71,000 compared to just over US$52,000 for the average U.S. adult.

U.S. adults who have read a newspaper on a mobile device (phone or tablet) in the past 30 days are also more valuable consumers as they shop, spend, and do more than the average U.S. adult:

  • They are 20% (index 120) more likely than average to have shopped at a fine jewelry store in the past three months.
  • They are 58% (index 158) more likely than average to have spent US$2,500 or more on online purchases in the past year.
  • They are 25% (index 125) more likely than average to have taken a trip outside the continental United States in the past three years.

In short, the newspaper mobile audience is growing, upscale, and precisely the kind of audience that many advertisers would want to reach.

We also ask these respondents about the type of devices they use to read newspapers. Apple devices dominate, as shown on the chart below.

It is important to understand the distinction between circulation and audience, because the audience story — especially as it pertains to mobile — is a growth story, even as circulation continues to slide. And the value of the mobile newspaper audience, by virtue of their youth, education, and affluence, is a unique benefit for advertisers.

This is a story we can all feel good about.

About Gary Meo

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