Good news and bad news for tablets and media

The Pew Research Center has a new report out on tablet usage, done by the center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, and it has some good news and bad news for media companies looking to tablets for salvation from the industry’s woes. The upside is that more than half of those surveyed use their devices to read the news — and they are reading more than they used to before they had a tablet. And the downside of all this news reading? Many of the sources tablet users are getting their information from are non-traditional, including social networks, and very few users say they are willing to pay for their news.

The study was done by Pew and the Economist Group in the summer and early fall of this year, including a telephone survey and a web-based survey, and looked at the behavior reported by 1,159 tablet users and 894 users who consume news on their tablet at least once a week. It found that more than half read or listen to the news daily; 30 percent of those surveyed said that they consume more news on their tablets than they used to before they had one; and 42 percent said they read in-depth articles “regularly” on their tablet (although like any survey, users may be telling researchers what they want to hear, rather than describing what they actually do).

This is definitely good news if you are in the media or content-publishing business, and I know it fits my own usage patterns pretty closely. The iPad (s aapl) in particular is such a perfect device for reading everything from books to magazine articles that I spend a lot more time doing those things than I used to before I had one.

That said, however, all this news content is being delivered more or less free of charge, or is supported by advertising in the traditional media model. A relatively small proportion of those surveyed — only 14 percent — said they were currently paying for the news they get directly on the tablet (although another 21 percent have print subscriptions that include digital access), and only 21 percent said they were willing to pay. And the users Pew surveyed were among the most committed news consumers, which theoretically would make them any media outlet’s preferred customer base.

The Pew report also had some bad news for media companies such as newspapers and magazines that have bet big on the use of content-specific apps: The largest proportion of users (about 40 percent) said they got their news primarily via a web browser, rather than using tablet apps. Only 21 percent said they mostly used brand-specific apps for their news. And again, these are the most committed news consumers and early adopters of tablet technology: the ones who would theoretically be the most likely to use apps, and to choose that method for getting their news.

As the Pew report notes, this doesn’t bode well for the future many media companies have been hoping would be ushered in by Apple and the iPad: a future in which consumers would download and pay for apps from their favorite newspapers and magazines, and then happily pay for the content from those apps.

When it was launched, many observers believed that the tablet might help change the experience of news consumers and the economic ground rules of digital news consumption. That belief was based on the sense that people would consume information on tablets largely through special applications or apps that provide content from a favorite news organization.

That doesn’t seem to be occurring. Although it’s possible more users will want to consume their news via specific apps in the future, it seems more likely that media companies will have to move in the direction that some outlets such as the Financial Times (s pso) have, and provide an app-like experience via the web browser using HTML5.

When it comes to the sources the Pew respondents go to for news, there’s some optimistic data for major news brands: A majority of users said they go directly to either a brand-specific app or a specific media company’s website when they want to read the news. However, the percentage of users who get their news through an aggregator such as Pulse is still relatively high — 36 percent said they do this — and another 35 percent said they get their news via a social network.

Interestingly, the news consumers who are going to brand-specific websites or apps don’t seem to be sharing much of that content on social networks; only 16 percent said that they do this. Whether this is because news outlets don’t allow sharing or make it too cumbersome to do so isn’t clear from the survey, but with over a third of news consumers saying they get their news from social networks on a tablet, this looks like an area where media companies could stand to improve — which could be why some have launched “social apps” in partnership with Facebook.

The bottom line from the Pew research is that tablets seem to be a superb way of distributing the news, and of reaching the most committed consumers of that news, many of whom are reading more and are fairly devoted to specific news brands. Unfortunately for media companies, the Pew report doesn’t contain much good news about how that translates into revenue for the outlets producing the news.

Post photo courtesy of Flickr user George Kelly