Quick—how many ways can you connect to the internet? Between the phones in their pockets, the tablets in their briefcases, and computers sitting on their desks at home, Americans average around 2.9 internet-connected devices per person. And they should make room for yet another, according to a new report—within three years, average device ownership is expected to grow to 4.1. That's indubitably good news for companies like Apple and Samsung, but it's also a reason for the news industry to celebrate.
The more devices a consumer owns, the more value they put on the media they consume, says a new study from the Boston Consulting Group. When they own one device, consumers tend to value the media they annually consume online at $667, according to BCG survey results. That figure jumps by 30 percent or more with each additional device, up to over $1,700 for consumers who own four devices or more. That media consumed includes a broad variety of content, like TV shows on Hulu and cooking blogs, as well as news. But the increased perceived value means more customers who are likely to pay for the content, says the report.
"The long-standing ethos that everything online should be free has probably been overstated," the report says. "In our experience, consumers are increasingly willing to pay for content—particularly for content that is unique, is rare, or is perceived to be a bargain."
And even in the case of sites that don't charge for readership, it could mean more ad revenue. Exactly how news organizations will thrive in a more mobile device-centric landscape is still murky.
"It's very clear there's going to be a lot more news consumption in a lot more different formats," says John Rose, a partner at BCG and one of the study's authors. "It's an open question about what the underlying business models will be."
Still, analysts wonder whether a rising tide of news readership would equally lift all boats. The report shows that while desktops and laptops are popular among people who own only one or two devices, those third and fourth devices are more likely to be smartphones and tablets. The nature of those kinds of technology, says one industry expert, holds particular benefits for established and trusted media brands.
"Mobile is increasing news consumption and also steering people to familiar brands. And the reason for that is touchscreen technology mobile. It's not as much search-based," says Tom Rosenstiel, executive director at the American Press Institute. Without separate keyboards for typing in search terms, he says, "people tend to have bookmarks, familiar places that they want to easily get to, or they have apps."
That means less of a boost for sites that do not have particularly loyal audiences or that rely heavily upon Google search, he says, while sites with niche interest or trusted names reap the benefits.
Rose agrees that the ability to seek out a loyal audience will be a key driver of success as news consumption moves from the broadsheet to the touchscreen. That means distinguishing oneself. Reporters and organizations that have unique voices, beats, reporting, and sourcing "will find really attractive business models," he says.
There is some evidence that news organizations are already seeing success with paid-content models. The New York Times—which requires online readers to pay a subscription after viewing a certain number of free articles—saw a revenue boost in 2012—its first increase since 2006, as Nieman Journalism Lab pointed out. Media company Gannett has also boosted its circulation revenues after putting 80 newspapers behind online pay walls last year. Still, there is plenty of room for growth for newspapers in the online arena; while print ad revenues have been tumbling, they still far outstrip online ad revenues or online subscription income.
The migration to mobile news consumption could also mean a revival of long-form journalism, says Rosenstiel, as people tend to spend more time reading stories on tablets and e-readers than they do on their desktops.
The scramble to take advantage of mobile readership is on, with businesses large and small unveiling redesigns and new sites tailor-made for touchscreens. That means that at least for the time being, the news industry in the mobile world will remain somewhat in flux, says Rosenstiel.
"The playing field is a little more level again at the moment," he says. "I don't know how long that lasts."