News reading metrics: One big game of “telephone” and average errors

I am building a presentation on mobile metrics, so most any data-related tidbit catches my eye. This from Mathew Ingram crossed my stream on Saturday:

 

The post linked to and lead me to re-read a piece by Google’s Hal Varian from 2010. I was shocked to be reminded how little time people spend reading news online:

…visitors to online newspaper sites don’t spend a lot of time there. The average amount of time looking at online news is about 70 seconds a day, while the average amount of time spent reading the physical newspaper is about 25 minutes a day.

But as I tweeted last week:

 

Basically, digital metrics are as much art as science. However, print metrics have been around a lot longer and are even more ‘artsy.’ Not to mention, never trust anything that reports an ‘average’ without explaining the details.

So, where does the ’70 seconds vs 25 minutes’ data come from?

The Slideshare deck from Varian’s talk includes a bit more detail on the digital numbers:

Online for month of June 2009
Unique audience: 70 million
Web page views: 3.2 billion
Sessions: 600 million
Pages per person: 49
Sessions per person: 8.5
Time per person: 38 min

Somewhat surprisingly, one of Varian’s sources for the statistics is a story by Martin Langeveld on NiemanLab.org in 2009. Langeveld was making a specific point (as evidenced by the headline Print is still king: Only 3 percent of newspaper reading happens online) that despite the hype around digital – a lot of people still like print. Fair enough.

Luckily, he does provide some context on the print readership numbers:

How much time was spent with printed newspapers?  NAA doesn’t offer a study providing an average, nor can I find one elsewhere, but I’m going to use 25 minutes Monday-Saturday and 35 minutes on Sunday. Multiplying this out, we get 96.5 billion minutes per month spent with printed newspapers.

In the comments and a postscript, Langeveld points out that the numbers can be disputed. But he links out to a 2006 report on the Newspaper Association of America website to support the print time-spent estimates.

Now that we have a source, the problem is a bit clearer. The NAA data is the result of field work by Scarborough Reseach done in late 2005 using a 23-minute questionnaire of 4,594 respondents. Seventy-four percent were regular (once weekly minimum) newspaper readers, 26% were not.

And that is the catch. The study (as far as I can tell from the PowerPoint) did not measure daily readership – it analyzed weekly engagement. So, among the 74% of respondents who read the paper at least ONCE in the previous week, 45 percent spent more than 30 minutes and 21 percent spent as little as one minute during their most recent session.

Among 4,594 repondents, 3,400 read a newspaper in the past 7 days
Among readers:
1,530 spent 30 minutes or more
1,156 spent 16-30 minutes
714 spent between 1 and 15 minutes

Since we have no idea how often these 3,400 people from 2005 read the paper we have quite a range of “time-spent” per day. The calculations are largely pointless, but we can easily generate averages from 2.5 to 40 minutes daily. A realistic range is anywhere from 4 to 30 minutes per day – among those who read newspapers regularly.

So while the original research methods were legitimate, they were not intended as a measurement of monthly time-spent.  And even as far as their intended purpose, the NAA numbers are still just a guess. There really is no way to track how many people (the pass-along rate is important) read the printed paper, how many pages they read, how many stories on each page they read, and how long they spend reading each story.

Plus, that was 2005.

So, lesson learned. Readership metrics are open for interpretation. And once a rumor gets started like an old game of telephone: from Scarborough in 2005 to NAA in 2006 to NiemanLab in 2009 to Hal Varian in 2010 to a random blog post in 2012 – the original meaning gets a bit lost.

Of course, a fair question might be – does using old/unintended numbers really change anything in the Web’s favor readership-wise? Not really. Print is still very popular and the news media possess only a small portion of the digital audience. But more importantly, we still have a three percent problem. That challenge has more to do with competing against Google and Facebook for attention, not against print for advertising revenues.

To end on a happier note, when you are measuring Web traffic, and reporting averages — you are going to end up with very low averages compared to actual reader behavior. That’s because 40-50% of visits are probably from fly-by consumers arriving via a Twitter or Facebook or Google. They are not your customers, and while they drive up page view and unique visitor numbers, they drive down average time-spent and ad click-through-rates.

So, if the NAA/Scarborough print engagement study can filter out non-customers why don’t we do the same on the Web? Go check out the numbers for your loyal visitors (10+ visits per month) and see what they look like. Of course, unless you are Facebook you are not going to end up with 30 minute reading sessions on average, but then in reality neither does print.

 

Public media & newspaper API

There must be additional media companies with public-facing APIs – these were just the obvious ones that showed up in a Google search. Interested though in who has developed internal APIs that are used for product development, not public use?

 
New York Times
http://developer.nytimes.com/
NPR
http://www.npr.org/api/index
ESPN
http://developer.espn.com/docs
The Guardian
http://www.guardian.co.uk/open-platform
BBC
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/developers
USA Today
http://developer.usatoday.com/
Associated Press (subscriber only)
http://developer.ap.org/capi
Huffington Post Polls
http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/pollster/api

Using Google Forms on a smartphone

I did a fair amount of Google-ing on this looking for a simple answer – without much luck.

So, in case this comes in handy here is a simple-ish way to use Google Spreadsheet forms on an iPhone for data entry in the field.

My current project is an ethnographic survey of news habits among commuters – with a focus on mobile devices. I have been gathering anecdotal info for a while on the commuter rail and T.

For class, I needed to formalize the data a bit, and wanted to use Google Spreadsheets. There may be better survey solutions out there that are mobile-friendly, but I have a lot of other stuff in Google Docs, so there you go.

Creating a form to gather Google Spreadsheet data is dead simple. And (previously unknown to me) you can break a survey form into multiple pages and contextually customize questions. That is GREAT for mobile use as it reduces the amount of content on a single page, and eliminates non-applicable queries on-the-fly.

Unfortunately Google Forms does not include any mobile-specific or responsive themes. It does work on a smartphone, but only with some significant pinch-zooming. This is especially a pain when using tiny radio buttons or check boxes.

The solution I arrived at is pretty simple, especially if you have access to a web server.

1. Set the theme for your form to “Plain” in Google Docs.

2. Limit your survey pages to one question each with 4 – 5 answers – eliminating the need to scroll to find the continue/submit button.

3. Use page breaks, and multiple choice options (which allow a redirect to specific pages based on prior answers) to customize the order and questions offered.

4. Embed the survey code from Google into a web page you control. Doing this on your own server is preferable as you want a completely blank page aside from the embed code.

Screengrab of a simple mobile survey page5. Drop a meta tag in the <head> to set a viewport. Something like: <meta name=”viewport” content=”width=320, initial-scale=.9″> I have not touched HTML much recently but viewport is not tough to understand and works on Android as well.

6. Set the iFrame width to 320 (or etc for your phone) and the trim the height to make it as short as possible, without losing the bottom of any page.

7. Test and adjust the viewport width or scale as appropriate.

8. Keep in mind this approach is not the most elegant use of a viewport, but my goal was iPhone specific so I was satisfied to hard-code these settings into the page.

9. Once you finish tweaking, you should end up with a decent looking mobile form, as pictured here, without the need to pinch-zoom every page constantly.

10. Suggest to Google that mobile-friendly themes would be great.

Seven mobile trends to watch in 2012

Arguing Apple vs Android and apps vs web is fun, but so 2011. So, thinking about 2012, a handful of mobile trends are worth tracking:

  1. Transactions/Authentication (NFC , Square etc.)
  2. External sensors and connected devices (Bluetooth 4.0/Internet of Things)
  3. Voice (Siri vs Google)
  4. Presence (Moving beyond check-ins)
  5. Home Hub (Airplay, HDMI outputs, home controls)
  6. Connected cars (3G-enabled, streaming Internet replacing AM/FM etc.)
  7. 4G (Speed changes behavior)

I am collecting links on these and other mobile topics on Delicious.