When the iPad and its non-Apple counterparts debuted in 2010, they were heralded as a means to save journalism (or at least as an promising experiment into a new medium), and publications quickly developed dedicated news applications that combined the aesthetics of print with interactivity of digital. After rough years of declining circulation and profits, finally, there was a digital experience that people might actually pay for.
But, there was one caveat. Users had access to dozens of these interactive newspapers and magazines, but they also had access to a Web browser, which could provide much of this content for free. What would they choose: paid-for apps or free web browsing?
"The Tablet Revolution," a study out today from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, finds that tablet users largely aren't willing to pay for news content, yet. The main reason: most consumers do not see any value-added by news apps.
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At this point just 14% of tablet news users have paid directly to access news on their tablet. Another 23% get digital access of some kind through a print newspaper or magazine subscription. Still, cost is a factor, even among this heavy news consuming population. Of those who haven't paid directly, just 21% say they would be willing to spend $5 per month if that were the only way to access their favorite source on the tablet. And of those who have news apps, fully 83% say that being free or low cost was a major factor in their decision about what to download.
However, it's not all bad news for tablet news.
News browsing is one of the most popular uses of tablet computers. It's as popular as checking email; more popular than watching videos. Also, tablet users are more likely to read an in-depth article beyond its headline. Once a consumer switches to tablets, they are not likely to go back to personal computers for their media. Furthermore, consumers who do use applications fall into a category that Pew calls "power news consumers": people who read more news than they ever did before they owned a tablet.
So, there is value in news applications, at least for some. Getting more people to understand that value, and forgo free browsing, is the challenge.
Brian Resnick is a former staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.