Magazines Lose Reader Engagement When They Go Digital-Only: Will Other Formats Suffer The Same Fate?

When the British music magazine New Musical Express became an online-only publication in March 2018, reader engagement times dropped by an estimated 72 percent over the following year.

This news comes through a new study that draws on Comscore data and data from the United Kingdom’s Publishers Audience Measurement Company. Interestingly, the magazine’s net weekly and monthly readership grew during the year after it discontinued its print edition, even while the number of minutes readers spent engaged with the brand dropped year-over-year by 307 million, from 424 million the year prior.

The new study lines up with previous research from the same researchers (Neil Thurman, professor of communication at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and Richard Fletcher, senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford), Mediate reports. When British newspaper The Independent dropped its print edition in 2016, it too saw less reader engagement: total time spent fell 81%.

In other words, format matters. Readers just don’t spend as much time reading a digital periodical as they spend reading a print one.

Why is print more engaging?

Online readers of New Musical Express spend an average of three minutes each month with the brand. Print readers? A half hour each week.

Granted, this imbalance can’t exactly be extrapolated out across any and every publication. The researchers include a few caveats: While their findings did show a similar lost of engagement for publications that dropped their print editions, Dr. Neil Thurman tells me that more specialist publications might not lose the interest of their audience, since that niche audience has fewer alternatives to turn to. “I’m thinking, for example, of Canada’s La Presse newspaper,” he says. “There weren’t many (or any?) other quality, French-language newspaper for readers to turn to in print when La Presse went online-only – a process that started in 2009 and finished in 2017.”

Still, the studies definitely show a steep drop in engagement once a publication isn’t available in print.

It’s easy to guess why time spent is down even as overall readership rises: The firehose of social media content is hosted on platforms that earn ad revenue by keeping audiences glued to the screen, and it needs to deliver a constant dopamine hit of new stuff to read. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all run on algorithms designed to surface only the most distracting content – a far cry from the self-contained environment of a single printed magazine issue.

But what about the shift towards digital content in other areas besides magazines and news? Is the same fate in store for television? What about books? I asked Neil Thurman for his thoughts.

Streaming TV might see lower engagement, too

Without additional studies, it’s tough to say whether other online-only media formats are facing the same lowered engagement time. “Little, if any, research has been done outside of newspapers and magazines,” Thurman says.

But one format might be in danger: TV. Television channels are certainly making the leap to online-only services. “Perhaps the best-known example is BBC Three, the British, youth-focused TV channel that stopped broadcasting and went online-only in 2016,” Thurman states.

“Because of how people consume TV — often in a lean-back way from the comfort of their couch, only paying partial attention — I suspect (but don’t know) much of the viewing of BBC Three via linear broadcast TV was lost when the channel went online-only.”

Do digital books see lower engagement than print ones?

But has the rise of ebooks brought with it the same plummeting engagement faced by perodicals and television? Possibly not, as a few factors set books apart.

For one thing, they come in a descrete unit, rather than doling out new episodes or issues constantly, so ebook readers know what they’re signing up for, and have fewer chances to click away. “The format of the e-book is, perhaps, more similar to its offline equivalent than online periodicals are to printed newspapers and magazines,” Thurman tells me, noting that the portability and ergonomics are similar, and that the ebook is a more “contained environment” than that of a news website.

That makes sense – As the author Craig Mod put it in a recent essay on the subject, print books offer a clear and simple “contract” with the reader, promising a clear ending point and a definitive number of pages. Ebooks aren’t quite as clear with their contract, but they’re undoubtedly better than the endless scroll of an Instagram or Twitter feed.

Also, unlike their news, people pay for their ebooks. This could make them more likely to stay engaged for a longer period, in an effort to get their money’s worth.

The fact that people buy print books and ebooks in different ways could impact which titles they settle on, even if it won’t necessarily impact engagement. “For example,” Thurman says, “the curated experience of browsing a bookstore is very different from browsing or searching Amazon for a Kindle title.”

A good ebook can definitely sustain the reader engagement it needs. Still, whether it’s news, TV, or books, the modern era’s undeniable shift towards digital content may well lower our engagement levels overall. And it’s tough to argue that that’s a good thing.