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Tablet Users Are Heavy News Readers

But revenue potential may be limited
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A year and a half since the Apple iPad was introduced, a new study shows that reading news has become a big part of what people use tablets for. But publishers still have a way to go to get people to pay for content on tablets.

The newest look at people’s willingness to pay for content is a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in collaboration with The Economist Group. The results will be released Tuesday in a report titled "The Tablet Revolution and What it Means for the Future of News."

The survey showed that 53 percent of tablet owners use the devices to read articles, roughly equal to the amount that use it for email (54 percent) and beating out the amount that use it for social networking (39 percent) and gaming (30 percent).  

There's good news for well-established brands too. Tablet users tend to turn to big-name news outlets, although a third try out new sources. (Pew defines news as everything from headlines to in-depth articles and commentary.)

However, apps, which publishers have seen as a golden opportunity to get new revenue from consumers, haven’t overtaken the browser as a way of getting news on the tablet. Only 21 percent of those surveyed primarily use apps to get news, while 40 percent rely on the browser. Another 31 percent said they use both equally.

“There’s good news and bad news here,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of PEJ and one of the study’s editors. “More than half are getting news daily. . . . Lots of previous research suggested people didn’t read Web pages very long. That may be less the case on the tablet. That makes it a game changer. What’s not a game changer yet is the expectation that the tablet is an app environment. Only 14 percent said they had paid for an app.”

Another 23 percent said they get digital access through an existing newspaper or magazine subscription, which arguably expands the definition of those who pay for digital content.

As for willingness to pay for content, of the respondents who don't currently pay for content on the device, 21 percent said they would pay $5 a month for content, and 10 percent said they’d pay $10 a month.

It’s still early, though, and Rosenstiel believes that apps could gain adoption for a couple reasons. First, their makers could learn how people use them and improve on them. “Apps a year or two from now will be pretty different,” he said. “The other possibility is that people will become more accustomed to paywalls. Television used to be free. Now, people pay for television.”

Paul Rossi, managing director of the Americas at the Economist Group, also saw a silver lining, especially for brands that already specialize in long-form journalism (like his own). "I'm reassured by the fact that the written word is still powerful," he said. "People are reading. They're reading long-form. And brands are also important."

The study was based on seven surveys of close to 1,200 tablet owners conducted by phone and Web this past summer.