The Great Digital Divide: daily & weekly publishers view digital benefits very differently.

During a keynote address at the Kansas Press Association convention in February, I presented the results of my annual survey of newspaper publishers in the U.S. and Canada for the first time. With roughly 15 percent of publishers in these two countries participating in the survey, it's a good bet the results are representative of the industry as a whole.

In my previous column, the first in a series concerning survey findings, we discussed some of the differences between healthy newspapers and newspapers with diminishing health over the past three years. Today, I'm going to take a look at the differences in how daily and weekly newspaper publishers view the benefits of their digital efforts.

After visiting thousands of newspapers during my career, and speaking to thousands more at conferences, there's not much that catches me off guard about our industry these days. But I was a little surprised by the vast differences between the way daily and weekly newspaper publishers view the benefits of their digital efforts.

Question 10 of the survey, "How do you feel about the following statement: "Our business would do just as well or better without a print version," was less divisive. It seems that both daily and non-daily publishers universally agree they wouldn't survive without a print version.

The differences arise in response to Question 11, "How do you feel about the following statement: "Our business would do just as well or better without a digital version."

A whopping 59 percent of daily publishers responded, "That's ridiculous. We would be in worse shape without a digital/online edition."

Conversely, 68 percent of weekly publishers believe it either "is" or "might be" true that their paper would do just as well without a digital version. When you add in the number of folks who responded "other," then wrote they didn't have a digital presence, you have well more than 70 percent of weekly publishers wondering if there is any advantage to having a digital edition of their newspapers.

Looking further, the differences of opinion between publishers of "healthy" newspapers and "unhealthy" newspapers is not as glaring. While 59 percent of publishers who rated their paper's health as "very healthy" or "relatively healthy" indicated their papers might be better off without a digital version, 54 percent of publishers who rated the health of their papers as "unhealthy" or "near death" felt the same about their digital efforts. Not a huge difference.

The results are even more striking when asked about the benefits of social media. Only 22 percent of non-daily (less than four issues per week) newspaper publishers report seeing any benefit, financial or otherwise, from their social media efforts. Compare that to 60 percent of daily newspaper publishers who see some type of benefit from their social media efforts and it's clear there are some real differences between the results of social media at daily and non-daily newspapers.

I'm fascinated by the responses to these surveys. As I hear from publishers and others after seeing the results of our past surveys, it's apparent that folks are often surprised to find their newspapers aren't so different from others. This is especially true when we look at categories like newspaper ownership models (a full 50 percent of U.S. and Canadian newspapers are not part of any group, with only 11 percent being part of a large regional or national group) and circulation (average circulation is less than 6,000).

I often hear attendees at conferences respond, "I thought we were different from everyone else."

There's some solace, I believe, from realizing you're not alone. At the same time, we can gain some benefit from learning what is working at other newspapers similar to our own.

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