Study by academics at City and Oxford analysed readership figures and time spent with newspaper brands

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The first UK national newspaper to end its print editions and publish online-only is struggling to retain British readers, and time spent with the brand has tumbled, new research has found.

A study of The Independent reveals that since the newspaper dropped its print editions in March 2016, its British readership has declined by around 1 per cent. This decrease contrasts with 12 other UK national newspaper titles that continue to publish print editions. Over the same period they have increased their readerships by an average of 25 per cent.

The study also shows that the total time spent with The Independent by its British audience is down by more than 70 per cent since the switch to online-only.

Lead author Dr Neil Thurman, of the Department of Journalism at City, University of London and LMU Munich, said: “The reason for the decline in time spent seems to be to do with how differently content is consumed in print and online. The Independent’s print readers were much more frequent consumers than its online visitors are. More than 50 per cent read the title almost every day. Compare that with online visitors who, in 2017, visited an average of just over two times a month.

“The paper also now finds itself in possession of a far more fleeting readership. For while its print readers were reading each edition for between 37 and 50 minutes, in 2017 The Independent’s online readers spent an average of less than six minutes a month with the brand.”

Figures are for readers aged 15+. Print reading time is a monthly average for the period April 2015–March 2016. Online reading time includes both and indy100/i100.

Chart: Neil Thurman and Richard Fletcher Source: NRS and comScore Get the data Created with Datawrapper

The study reveals better news for the title in its overseas market. Its online traffic from outside the UK grew by about 50 per cent in the first year post-print and by a further 20 per cent in the second.

The authors note that in The Independent’s most recent annual report the company sees the U.S. as its “largest market” and the firm’s business plan “anticipates further international growth, supported by investment to support foreign correspondency and commercial revenues in high potential markets, including India and the Middle East”.

Note: The vertical scale is logarithmic. Chart: Neil Thurman Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations Ltd Get the data

Created with Datawrapper

The researchers chose to analyse The Independent because it is the first national, general-interest daily newspaper in the UK – and one of the first in the world – to move online-only.

According to the study, going online-only has allowed The Independent to make large savings in distribution costs and become profitable. In the 2016–17 financial year the digital arm turned a profit, after tax, of £2.52 million.

Dr Richard Fletcher, co-author of the study and a research fellow with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, believes newspapers will persevere with print.

He said: “This case study shows that, as an online-only title, The Independent’s reach in its home market is falling behind its competitors who have retained print editions and that the attention it receives has tumbled. Trading centrality and influence for financial sustainability is not something that all proprietors will want to do.”

The study has been published in the journal Digital Journalism. Data for the research came from the National Readership Survey / PAMCo, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, and comScore.

Download the paper, Are Newspapers Heading Towards Post-Print Obscurity? A Case Study of The Independent’s Transition to Online-only

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