Changing Content Consumption Habits Across Europe

In my December 2012 column, I discussed the importance of real world/virtual world connections and the way in which digital sales of Fifty Shades of Grey had seeded and driven massive print sales. Fast-forward 12 months, and charity shops in the U.K. are grappling with a glut of donated unwanted copies of Fifty Shades, which cannot be recycled and which no one wants to buy.

Tottering piles of unsold secondhand books are pretty hard to miss. But there's no doubt that publishing consumption habits are continuing to change across Europe in other, more subtle, ways despite the many cultural and political differences in play across the continent. Nowhere is this more evident than in the news and current affairs segment. A comprehensive study, released earlier this year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, explores digital news consumption across nine countries, including the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Denmark.

The headline finding of the report is that "[n]ews is becoming more mobile, more social, and more real-time." But the report also notes the digital revolution is not developing at the same rate in all countries. "What happens in the US does not necessarily follow automatically in Europe or elsewhere," according to co-editor Nic Newman. 

The report found considerable national variation in methods of news discovery. In France, Germany, Spain, and Italy search engines are an important gateway to information-45% of respondents in France and 49% in Italy said that search was one of their main ways to access news stories, compared to just 24% in the U.K. Social media was also ranked as a major gateway in Germany, Spain, and Brazil, but not in the U.K. 

I was fascinated to learn that Spanish, Italian, and American news consumers are more than twice as likely to use a social network to comment on a news story compared to someone from the U.K. Only 10% of U.K. consumers said they participated in this way, compared to 27% from Spain and 26% from Italy. In general, southern European nations seem to be much more comfortable with participating in sharing and news discussion. Given the highly developed technology ecosystems in the latter countries, cultural factors are clearly at play here, which publishers looking to roll out services across Europe would do well to bear in mind.

In Europe, traditional brands still hold sway for many. In the U.K. and Denmark, for example, traditional news brands attract 80% or more of the online audience. That said, even the most celebrated traditional brands are not impervious to the changing landscape. The London-based Lloyd's List, which has provided news for the shipping industry since 1734, announced in September that it would be abandoning print and going completely digital. Parent company Informa, PLC said that 97% of customers preferred to access business information online and that less than 2% of readers use print only and no other means to access the publication. Lloyd's List is in a fortunate position: It provides valuable, highly specialist information and has more than 16,600 subscribers who pay almost £1,800 (about $2,919) for a single subscription. 

Early editions of Lloyd's List have been digitized and are freely available on the web. Browsing the archive, I was struck by the following announcement in the Friday, Jan. 2, 1740, issue: "This List, which was formerly publish'd once a Week, will now continue to be publish'd every Tuesday and Friday, &c. Subscriptions are taken in at Three Shillings per Quarter, at the Bar of Lloyd's Coffee-House in Lombard-Street. Such Gentlemen as are willing to encourage this Undertaking, shall have them carefully deliver'd according to their Directions."

As I look back to 1740, and forward to 2014, I'm struck as much by the similarities as the differences in the challenges faced by publishers. Business models continue to evolve, whether it is changing to a twice-weekly publishing cycle or deciding to go all digital. Monetizing readership is vital, whether from 3-shilling subscriptions or via a paywall. And delivery remains key-it's just that now we expect our content on all devices, all the time.