Last summer we spent a bit of time looking at the devices and media people used during their commute. Today, we thought we'd share some a few of those data points as a snapshot into what happens while people commute. Not surprisingly, we found that digital devices made up the bulk of the mediums people engaged with during their commute. At the time we were interested in the future of the newspaper industry, particularly the future of the free-sheet business. Commuters make up a big piece of their readership, and we were interested in the degree to which media devices might challenge the free-sheets for readers. While the decline in advertising budgets affecting the newspaper business generally is probably the greatest challenge the free-sheet business is staring down, a shift towards media devices as an easy way to fill idle time presents a tangible problem.
Two separate data points from the Pew Internet and American Life Project provide some context. First, in a study about how people find out about their local community, Pew reports that while many consumers feel newspapers play a key role in keeping them informed about their local community (suggesting continued demand for local papers), neither younger adults (18-29) nor heavy technology users care for them. Indeed, Pew reports that newspapers matter less to people under 40.
Second, recent work from Pew on how Americans use their cell phones demonstrate the extent to which cellphone owners use their phones to fill empty moments. Pew reports that nearly half of the adult cellphone owning population (42 percent) use their phone to stave off boredom, a number that blows up to 70 percent of people when you narrow your sample down to only those aged 18-29-years-old. With smartphone ownership currently at 42 percent of the population (a figure which grew 11 percent between June 2011 and February 2012), we see smartphones as an increasing threat to the free-sheet (and papers generally) when it comes to filling the empty time during a commute.
Wanting to get a first-hand experience of the role devices such as smartphones might be playing in the life of a commuter we headed out onto New York's MTA during rush hour. We started by looking inward, polling the people in the office about how they got to work and how they spent their commute. Unsurprisingly, we found not only a large number of readers here in the office, but the smartphone emerged as the platform of choice for filling their time.
Our next step was to see how these behaviors might map more broadly. We developed a methodology for recording what people around us did during their commute. We rode 5 different routes during morning and evening commuter hours for four consecutive days, observing a total of 2,176 people in randomly selected carriages. Along the way, we noted how they spent their time commuting, focusing on which devices people used and the percentage of people we observed reading.
Like our small sample of surveyed commuters, the bulk of those we observed spent their time using smartphones. Indeed, while MP3 players hold the top spot in the chart on the right, we believe many of these are smartphones rather than dedicated MP3 players. We’re refining the methodology to better record this.
We observed just under half of the total pool of commuters reading at some point during their commute. (1,036 “readers”). Once again, the smartphone reigned supreme. We counted “reading” as extended engagement with a medium (device or paper), so just checking one’s phone once or twice didn’t count. free-sheets accounted for only 10 percent of the total number of items read. We saw people reading four times as many smartphones as free-sheets.
We recognize a few limitations to the methodology we employed. Our routes were picked in part out of convenience, rather than due to rider numbers or geographic distribution. Free-sheets were observed at the originating station on 4 of the 5 routes we rode, though they were only actively being distributed (handed out by an agent) at one originating station. They were available at various points along every route. We've thought about following up by examining reading rates on routes originating from stations where free-sheets are actively distributed.
While note perfect, observation like this brings you closer to what people are doing than circulation or ownership counts but they don't bring you intimately close to how they're spending their commute. That said, documenting the degree to which media devices feature in the daily experience of commuters gave this project interesting depth, and was particularly valuable given the rate at which technology ownership changes. We expect that the rapid recent growth of tablet ownership, for instance, will change the commuter landscape again.