If Stanford’s Future of Media Conference tells you people only read news on their phones for 70 seconds a day, check it out

This afternoon I was checking Twitter when I should have been working on a presentation and saw a retweet of something from @StandfordBiz:

Wow. That’s an astounding statistic about what you do in 2014! It really suggests something about your newsreading habits doesn’t it? Despite all the sites out there publishing great stories, you still seem to spend more time with print. A statistic shared with the Stanford Future of Media Conference and @StanfordBiz’s Twitter account’s 168K followers (receiving 41 retweets!) could be quite influential if it’s true. A flurry of trend pieces is sure to follow!

Except everything I’ve read in the past few years suggests people are reading more news online, particularly on tablet and mobile (phone) products. Even when compared with print products.

“Tablet owners spend an average of 51 minutes reading the news, whereas smartphone owners spend around 54 minutes. But people who own both a smartphone and tablet spend an average of 64 minutes on the tablet and 54 minutes on the smartphone checking in on news.” (via)

“Digital devices get slightly more than half of total media time — about 10 times more than newspapers and magazines.” (via)

“US adults now spend more time with their mobile phones than with print magazines and newspapers combined, at 1 hour and 5 minutes vs. just 44 minutes,” according to eMarketer.” (via)

But as someone once said, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Rather than develop a counterargument against that statistic with others, I wondered about the original statistic. So:

@ChasNote, the speaker, is Chas Edwards whose Twitter bio says he is “president and publisher at California Sunday, publisher of The California Sunday Magazine.” He followed this reply up with:

Not particularly interested in waiting – again, I was trying to avoid working on a presentation – I started digging around myself.

Hal Varian first used that statistic in 2010. Four years ago. Before iPads and other digital devices changed the habits of news consumption.

Further digging revealed this post from Kiesow which says the original 70 seconds number came from a 2009 Nieman Lab story on a Newspaper Association of America study of Nielsen data, which makes that number look more like 90 seconds to me but I’m bad at math and avoid work by tracking down obscure stats cited at Future of Media Conferences so I could be wrong.

But for the sake of argument, let’s take a brief visit back to 2009 for a moment.

What were the best-selling phones – upon which people were supposedly only reading 70 seconds of news per day – in 2009? The iPhone 3GS was tops at 35 million but a CNet review of it from 2009 didn’t even see fit to mention its web browsing/newsreading capabilities. Numbers two, three and four of the top 10 phones sold that year (totalling some 50 million units) looked a lot like that bad boy on the right, the Nokia 2700. Do you remember owning that kind of phone? I do. And I didn’t read much news on it either. So that 70 seconds number could be totally accurate! Although why you’d stand up in front of a roomful of people at a Stanford Future (future…) of Media Conference in 2014 and cite a five year-old statistic to illustrate current media consumption, I don’t know. Maybe Edwards didn’t know how old it was.

Except in the list of links Edwards later posted, he linked to Varian’s original speech from 2010 as well as a speech Varian gave in 2013 when he revised his “70 seconds” number to “2 to 4 minutes” though he doesn’t give a citation for the new number. So Edwards knew Varian’s take on the number had changed since 2010 when Varian first gave the speech. And it certainly runs counter to some other stats Edwards found like the Buzzfeed readers who tucked into a 6000 word story on Detroit real estate and spent an average of 25 minutes doing so.

The other thing about the 70 seconds vs. 25 minutes numbers? The Kiesow post notes the 25 minutes number comes from a NAA study in 2005. Nine years ago and four years prior to the “70 seconds” online news study. And even that number is a little hinky. (“A realistic range is anywhere from 4 to 30 minutes per day – among those who read newspapers regularly.” Emphasis is Kiesow’s.)

So why use data that’s not only old but from two different years? Probably because it was cited by a Google economist (authority bias is a helluva drug). Plus, it’s “too good to check” as the saying goes.

After all, it makes for a great tweet.

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