When Amazon introduced their e-book reader, the Kindle, Steve Jobs made a strong proclamation regarding the book industry that received a lot of attention: "It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore... The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore." As it turns out, he was only half-right. People read, even those in the younger generation, they just prefer to do it online.
Although Jobs' statement at the time, was that "Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year," the real figure is closer to 27 percent, based on an August 2007 survey by Ipsos Public Affairs for The Associated Press (cited in The New York Times).
However, in general terms, Jobs was speaking towards a growing trend in the print industry. It's not that people don't read anymore - of course, many still do - it's just that today's young generation of consumers, and Jobs' future customers, aren't bothering to read "offline media" - that is books, magazines, or newspapers.
A recent comScore Plan Metrix study backs this up, finding that young news readers are less likely to read printed newspapers. In fact, those that are between 18 and 24 are 38 percent more likely than average to NOT read a newspaper during a typical week. However, non-newspaper readers are heavy news consumers - in fact, they read a lot, they just prefer to get their news online, and not just from online newspaper web sites, like WSJ.com, but also from TV News brands (like CNN and FoxNews) and Internet News brands (like Digg and Topix).
Non-newspaper readers are a particularly important segment to reach because they are heavier than average news consumers they just prefer to consume it in a digital format, says Jack Flanagan, executive vice president of comScore.
Again, overall, the magazine industry is doing OK, except when it comes to young readers. On March 6th, members of the magazine publishing industry held a MediaTel seminar where the challenges of their industry were discussed. The problem is not in readership decline, it seems, but in teen readership decline.
Duncan Edwards, chief executive of National Magazine Company, said that, despite a slight down-turn in actively purchased magazines by 1.1 per cent, the print magazine industry still generates huge profits.
However, MediaTel managing director Derek Jones said the industry must find new ways of engaging with the teen market which has suffered a steady decline in sales. The problem, according to ShortList chief executive Mike Soutar, is that the younger generation like to consume media for free and they have come to expect free content through online extensions.
In 2004 the U.S. Department of Education asked 17-year-olds "How often do you ... read for fun on your own time?" With no limitation specified on where or how this reading was done, 19% replied "Never or hardly ever", more than double the 1984 rate of 9%. Since online reading wasn't specified, the kids probably took this to mean, "how often do you read books?" Still, the figure should not be dismissed as it highlights the decline of offline reading activities.
The study found also that as kids enter high school and adolescence they tend to read less often, and their reading skills stagnate or worsen compared with teens of previous years. In 2003, only 4% of American high-school graduates who did not earn college degrees could be called "proficient" readers.
The Flip Side
Some, like Steve Johnson of the Guardian, says that reports of reading decline doesn't take into consideration the amount of reading we doing on our computers every day. He counters a recent NEA report "To Read or Not to Read," which details the decline of literacy in the U.S.
Johnson writes, that it "raises an interesting question: if people are reading less, why haven't [standarized test] scores dropped more dramatically?" He goes on to point out that a recent British Library study of onscreen research activities found that "new forms" or reading are emerging...like "power browsing," a habit of the new "digital natives."
He concludes that "the only reason the intellectual benefits are not measurable is that they haven't been measured yet. There have been almost no studies that have looked at the potential positive impact of electronic media."
Sunil Iyengar of the NEA and Mark Bauerlin, formerly of the NEA, say that Johnson ignores some of the study's findings, like the fact that "non-required" reading (picking up a book for the fun of it) is down 7% since 1992 for all adults, and 12% for 18-24 year olds. They claims that Johnson chooses to look only at other findings that support his opinion.Meanwhile,
They point out that, sure, "new forms of reading" may exist, but it's not a good thing: the study claims that "from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, 'flicking' behavior in digital libraries. Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all ... Society is dumbing down."
Iyengar and Bauerlin even cite that there is evidence of damage linked with excessive viewing and surfing - enough sufficient data, in fact, which led the American Academy of Pediatrics to advise parents to keep children's rooms free of electronic media.
So is a diet of only digital media bad? With today's youngest generations being some of the first to be raised in a world where the internet and computers are as common as TVs and microwaves ovens, it will take more time to thoroughly examine the side effects, if any, of an all-digital lifestyle. However, successes like those of the Harry Potter books, show that even now, kids will read print media if it's good enough and captures their interest. And in the meantime, whether they read online or off, isn't it just good enough that they are, in fact, reading?