Time's up for time spent
A view from Vanessa Clifford

Time's up for time spent

Mary Meeker's platform-specific view is an increasingly uncomfortable and old-fashioned fit.

It’s that time of year again – Mary Meeker has released her annual time-spent chart causing media commentators on both sides of the Atlantic to start pontificating on the future for newspapers (or at least their print products).

In recent years, the time spent chart – dramatically dubbed "the scariest chart in Mary Meeker’s slide deck for newspapers" by Nieman Journalism Lab – has taken on an almost legendary status among media devotees. I believe this is partly because it fits with preconceived views that many are happy to see reinforced – print struggles while digital platforms surge. It’s human nature to gravitate towards information that supports rather than challenges us, even if it means overlooking complicating factors.

There was a time when Meeker’s assertions on time spent were an annual thorn in the industry’s side, yet this year the sting is no longer sharp. Despite Nieman’s warning, newspapers aren’t running scared.

So what’s changed?

Well, firstly, when it comes to Meeker’s slide, not a lot. Her time spent with print prediction has remained the same since 2014 and, as we all know, four years is a long time for something to remain steadfast in media land.

The fact remains that time spent – or following the eyeballs – is not a fail-safe recipe for advertising success. Far from it. What Meeker’s chart has never taken into consideration is the quality of the attention paid to the media she tracks. We know from studies conducted with both PwC and Lumen that newspapers provide unrivalled solus-attention scores (while I love a bit of multi-tasking, I’ve not managed to crack reading while doing something else!). Research shows that 60% of newspaper readers do not consume any other media at the same time as reading newspapers, while eye-tracking studies reveal that print newsbrand ads are viewed for 2.5 times longer than an average digital ad. A similar story of heightened attention plays out when you compare online newsbrands with general online content.

Driving this attention is the context that newspapers provide, an element which is entirely written out of the equation when it comes to the time spent brigade. Our research proves that newsbrands’ relevant, topical environment produces massive uplifts in attention for advertisers, both on and offline. It’s an invaluable factor which is completely overlooked by Meeker’s increasingly out of step assertion that ad dollars should follow time spent. 

On a wider level, it’s hard not to question the premise of Meeker’s time spent insight when it remains unchanging in the face of change. In the past year and a half, we as an industry have seen the importance of context, responsibility and brand safety play out in the starkest sense. The Times’ ad placement revelations last year unleashed a new awareness that where ads appear really does matter and that the murky world of programmatic needs to be made fit for purpose. At the risk of sounding like a kill-joy, "quality over quantity" rings truer than ever. Some ad ages are there for a reason. Meeker’s continued fixation with quantity seems staid and out of date with current industry developments.

The irony of course is that many of those making sense of Meeker’s latest findings will be relying on the press and professional journalists to curate the content, filter out the headlines and provide the surrounding context. To do what we all count on the press to do, whether we’re consuming it in print or online.  

Which brings me to my final point. It’s fair to say that the newspaper industry – at least in the UK – is doing a pretty good job of breaking down the platform-based silos that were so dominant, even five years ago. With the launch of Pamco, taking an audience rather than platform first approach has become an actionable reality for advertisers.

We all know that newspapers exist across multiple platforms, but now the industry’s measurement system allows for cross-platform planning of their huge audiences. In this light, Meeker’s platform-specific view is an increasingly uncomfortable and (whisper it) old-fashioned fit.

So, before you fall for the time spent argument, take some time to consider what it doesn’t tell us.

Vanessa Clifford is chief executive of Newsworks