Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Three ways readers are surprising us

Readers are an ever-changing — and occasionally fickle — lot.

Some prefer the printed paper. Others have migrated to a computer, a digital tablet or a smartphone. Many readers move from one to another during any given day.

It’s important that we keep up with these new reading habits. And that we give readers the kinds of stories they want most.

Technology has allowed us to track readers’ interests like never before. In recent months, readership data have surprised us in three ways.

1 Phones are king

A few years ago, digital tablets — the Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy and others — looked like the digital device of the future for newspaper readers.

Tablet screens are big enough that a person can easily read our home page. Readers also use them to flip through the pages of our newspaper replica edition.

Digital tablet sales were skyrocketing.

In the past year, however, the tide has turned. Tablet sales growth has slowed, and phones are the new reader darling.

Why the success?

Smartphones have grown more powerful. And while their screens are getting bigger, they’re still small enough to fit into a pocket or purse. We have phones with us all the time, which makes them handy for checking headlines.

Last month, 36 percent of the TNT’s digital readers came to us from a smartphone. Only 11 percent of digital readers were using a tablet. Phone readership is up 10 percentage points since last year; tablet readership is up 1 percentage point. (Desktop readership is falling as the phone and tablet numbers grow.)

Our response?

Pay increasing attention to the phone readers. In fact, we redesigned our phone websites in the past year, which might have helped boost the reader numbers.

Yet, we won’t ignore tablet readers. While they make up a smaller percentage of the total, each tablet user reads three times as many pages as a phone reader. That makes them valuable.

We’re considering a premium tablet edition for next year that will take advantage of the tablet’s super-sized touch screen.

2 People want to read something that looks like a newspaper

Several years ago, to help readers transition from print to digital, our industry developed an online newspaper that looks like a newspaper. We call it our e-Edition or replica edition.

Replica readers see the same front page as print readers and can swipe to “turn” inside pages that are identical to pages in that day’s printed paper.

Stories aren’t updated as news breaks, as they are on our website. The replica edition stands still. For many readers, that’s its beauty.

They’d rather have their news, as selected by editors, in a finite, digestible, familiar form. Some say the replica gives them a sense of accomplishment at having “read the paper.”

Many readers — including me — use the replica when we’re out of town. It’s the only way to see the paper as our print readers are seeing it that day.

Surprisingly, rather than dying out as a transitional product, the replica edition is becoming more popular.

In 2012, our replica edition had 1.5 million page views. In 2013, it had 7 million. In 2014, we’re headed for more than 13 million.

Our response?

As I tell readers about the printed newspaper, as long as enough of you keep reading the replica, we’ll keep “printing” it.

3 Readers love crime stories

In spite of what you say, it’s true.

Stop writing so many “bad news” stories, readers often tell me. Why don’t you ever write about the good things happening in our community?

Research we’ve conducted over the past four months has tracked readership (albiet online, since it’s impossible to know what each reader reads in print) by topic. Of the 34 news topics on our list, stories about crime, courts and criminal justice had the highest readership.

From June through September, readers collectively spent 56,000 hours reading TNT crime stories.

That didn’t surprise us. Crime stories attract attention because they are unusual. If banks were robbed 10 times a day, bank robberies would no longer be news.

What’s surprising is how deeply people read those stories. Beyond just clicking on a headline, readers spent an average 2.56 minutes reading each crime story. That’s just slightly below the average for all stories.

Never fear, we agree it’s important to write about positive happenings, too.

That’s why Friday’s front page had a piece about a Lakewood college student who won big on “Wheel of Fortune.” Thursday’s cover had a story about the resident cat at King’s Books. (Granted, the cat died, but the story about him was sweet.)

And Wednesday’s A1 centerpiece was about Art and Norma Miller, whose 68-year love story continues even since she moved into a local retirement home.

But you can’t say you don’t read crime stories, so we’ll keep them in our mix.

More than ever before, we know what you’re interested in and how you want to read about it.