Smartphones aren't displacing traditional media sources for most news consumers—instead, they're creating their own niche, according to a recent study out of Ohio State University. Headed up by communication professor John Dimmick, the study argues that smartphones are only used to deliver news when people have time to kill during the day and other media (such as TV or newspapers) isn't available. The team's data was collected in 2007, however, so things may have changed significantly since the introduction of the iPhone and the plethora of user-friendly smartphones after it.
Dimmick and his team had 166 study participants keep a diary of their media consumption throughout the day, including where, when, and how they consumed it. (The participants were all between the ages of 19 and 68, and were not full-time students in order to ensure that they had a fairly normal daily routine.) Ultimately, the participants recorded 1,843 "media sessions" via television, radio, computers, newspapers, mobile device, or some other medium.
What the researchers found was that computers were the most common way for people to access the news, at 39 percent total—24 percent on desktops and 15 percent on laptops. TV came in second at 29 percent, and newspapers and radio tied at 9 percent apiece. Only about seven percent of all media sessions happened on a mobile device. More than half (58 percent) of news consumption happened at the participants' residences, though 21.4 percent happened at work, and 10 percent happened while in a vehicle.
Despite the seemingly low mobile device usage, the researchers noted that they were particularly popular during the workday or while the participants were out and about. These were times when users normally wouldn't be able to access other forms of news at all, so news via smartphone actually ended up adding something in a news desert instead of replacing something that was already there.
"Typically, what happens with new media is that they compete with and displace older media to a certain extent, like television did with radio," Dimmick said in a statement. "But at least early in its development, mobile media isn't taking us away from older media—it has its own separate niche."In the paper, the researchers note that different niches lend to different media preferences. For example, newspapers tended to be most popular while in the home in the early morning—no surprise there, as most dailies are delivered in the morning. Television was particularly popular in the home in the late evening and night hours. Radio was often used as a stopgap for when people were commuting to and from work in their vehicles, helping to boost those aforementioned vehicle numbers.
Mobile devices and cell phones, by comparison, tended to be the go-to news delivery device when users were stuck in line at the supermarket or eating at a restaurant—what the researchers refer to as a "'transit' niche, serving consumer needs for news and information when they are on the move in space and time."
The study's findings seem to go against recent reports from the Pew Internet and American Life Project that say news consumers are very much into using mobile devices to get their fix, but there's a reason for that. The OSU study's authors say the data was collected before the original iPhone—followed by the flood of Android phones, webOS devices, new Windows-based phones, and newer RIM devices—ever took off. "The success of the iPhone may mean that mobile media has started to make inroads into the use of other media technologies," the team said.