How much time do people on average spend with news on a daily basis? A few weeks back, Chris Moran from the Guardian asked this seemingly simply question to which I did not know, but wanted to know, the answer.
There are at least three immediate problems in answering the question. First, people won’t necessarily agree on what precisely constitutes news versus other genres (opinion, sport, culture, etc.), second, we don’t have consistent reliable data across platforms (digital, broadcast, print) and, third, the best available source of consistent data across platforms, surveys, relies on self-reporting, which is notoriously plagued by problems of social desirability bias and inaccurate recall. (Markus Prior compared surveys with behavioural data for TV and found that surveys on average exaggerate news consumption by a factor of three.)
I am going to ignore these three problems here (because we can’t solve them at the moment), as well as the many others that complicate a precise and robust result, and try to give a minimal viable answer to Chris’ rather relevant question. I will offer a high estimate based on generous assumptions and a low estimate based on more conservative assumptions. The figures for the UK in 2016 are, 74 minutes and 25 minutes, depending on assumptions, and for the US 72 minutes and 24 minutes.
I will caveat the estimates further by saying that (1) that time spent does not mean “devote” as in Chris’ original question, as much media use involve multi-tasking, either dual screening with multiple media (about 1/5 of media use according to Ofcom) or using media while also doing something else, and (2) statistically, we know that “no one is average”, so there will be significant variation most importantly probably by age, interest, and socio-economic class—but I will stick to averages here for a simple overview with simple assumptions.
Enough caveats—here is what the estimates above are based on. First, an estimate of what percentage of time spend on specific media platforms (television, radio, etc.) people spend on news. Second, up-to-date data on how much time people spend with specific media platforms. The high estimates treat the self-reported data as relatively reliable. Third, the low estimate simply divide self-reported figures by three as per Prior’s finding.
The steps then are as follows—
First, the estimate of time spent with news.
The most recent publicly available study based on a single consistent source of data that estimates time spent with news that I know of is from the Pew Research Center in the US. In 2010, they surveyed Americans to learn how much time they spent with news on various platforms, including television, radio, print, and online. Using data from this study on the number of minutes Americans said they spent with news on various media platforms and data from eMarketer on how much time American spent in total with the same various media platforms allow us to calculate the percentage of time spent with news on each platform—e.g. in 2010, Pew finds that people on average spend 32 minutes with television news on a daily basis, and eMarketer reports people spend 4 hours and 24 minutes watching television, so television news accounts for 12 percent of viewing time.
So here is what we get. In 2010 in the United States in, the average time spend with news by medium was—
32 minutes of television news (12% of 4:24 average viewing time)
13 minutes of digital news (7% of 3:14 spent with digital media across desktop, smartphone, and tablet)
10 minutes of print news (20% of 0:50 spent with print)
15 minutes of radio news (16% of 1:36 spent with radio)
70 minutes in total (about 11 % of the 10 hours and 42 minutes eMarketer estimated Americans spend with media daily in 2010).
Second, up-to-date data on time spend with specific media platforms.
For this, I use Ofcom’s Digital Day study from 2016 for the UK and from eMarketer for the US. If we use the percentages calculated above as a reasonable approximation of how much time spend with a particular medium is spend specifically with news on average, we can calculate the average time spend with news by looking at people’s media use in 2016. (Strong public service media in the UK may mean that the US percentages are too low, as public service media tend to program more news at peak viewing times (documented by Toril Aalberg et al.) and reach wide audiences online.)
The estimates then look as follows—
UK 2016, based on data from Ofcom
38 minutes of TV news (12% of 5:13 viewing time)
19 minutes of digital news (7% of 4:27 spent with digital media across desktop, smartphone, and tablet)
5 minutes of print news (20% of 0:26 spent with print)
12 minutes of radio news (16% of 1:15 spent with radio)
74 minutes in total (this too is about 11% of the 10 hours and 52 minutes Ofcom estimated Brits spend with media daily in 2016).
US 2016, based on data from eMarketer
29 minutes of TV news (12% of 4:05 viewing time)
23 minutes of digital (7% of 5:25 spent with digital media across desktop, smartphone, and tablet)
6 minutes of print (20% of 0:28 spent with print)
14 minutes of radio (16% of 1:27 spent with radio)
72 minutes in total (so about 10% of the 12 hours and 5 minutes eMarketer estimated Americans spend with media daily in 2016).
The high estimates based on generous assumptions stop here.
Third, the low estimates in the figure above
These are based on more conservative assumptions by factoring in Prior’s finding, that people on average over-report by a factor of three (young people, rich people, and people with kids tend to over-report more than that—in some demographics by a factor of eight). The factor may be different in the UK but Prior’s estimate is the best I know of.
Looking specifically at the figure for digital, other sources based on tracking data rather than recall would support that. While the self-reported measures from Pew suggest that people in 2010 on average spent 7% of their time with digital media with news, tracking data from Nielsen suggest that the actual figure in 2011 was much lower, reportedly just 2.6%. This is close to the figure one would arrive at if factoring in Prior’s average over-reporting (2.3%). And some figures for how much time people spend with news across digital media are lower than that. (In the absence of robust data, I have not tried to account for possible difference in the share of news that people consume as part of various ways of using digital media, e.g. difference between desktop and mobile, or difference between news as a share of browsing on the open web versus as a share of time spent with social media—if people know of good data I would like to see it so I can update.)
Beyond giving high and low estimates of how much time people on average spend with news on a daily basis, these calculations also draw attention to a basic feature of the structural move from analogue to digital media: news is a much, much smaller share of what we do with digital media (at most 7% on average) than it is of what we do with older offline forms of media, including print (20%), radio (16%) and even television (12%). The move to a digital media environment with far fiercer competition for our attention is thus a move to an environment in which people spend more time with media, but almost certainly will spend less time with news—and this would be even more so if it wasn’t for products and services like search engines and social media that in their current form demonstrably drive incidental exposure to news when people use them for other purposes.
The powerful driving forces behind this shift are technology, which vastly expand supply, and our relative preferences, which determines the demand. And as Prior has shown in previous work on the move to cable television, while almost everyone is interested in news, most of us have many other things we are more interested in, so the more we get to choose from, the bigger the gulf between those who are most interested in news and those who are less interested in it. Media choice is good in many ways, but it also increases information inequality. And no media environment has ever offered us as many choices as we have today with digital media.
I am grateful to Richard Fletcher for his comments, suggestions, and assistance.