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TidBITS 2007 Reader Survey Results: News & Info Sources

We’ve been busy with other things, but we haven’t forgotten the results of our recent reader survey, which garnered responses from over 3,500 people. In the first installment (see “TidBITS 2007 Reader Survey Results: Who Are You?,” 2007-03-12), I looked at what the results said about who reads TidBITS. This time I’m instead focusing on how our readers acquire technical news and information. I have a few charts that illustrate the numbers, which you can view either by visiting the linked graphic or just reading this article on our Web site, where graphics now appear inline within the article.

In the survey, we asked about the ways in which you acquire Mac- and tech-related news and information. The table below summarizes the answers.

News Source          (1)  (2)  (3)  (4)   (5)     Rank


Email newsletters    48   119  363  687  2177    15008

Web sites            52   215  706  949  1422    13506

Personal email      255   732  825  638   820    10846

Print magazines     541   738  746  598   638     9837

Discussion forums   589  
918  707  498   501     9043

In-person           753   974  766  419   291     8130

RSS feeds          1261   641  350  226   705     8022

Aggregator sites   1357   665  486  268   345     6942

Podcasts           1383   799  415  285   267     6701

blogs     1294   871  527  289   151     6528

First, some notes. Remember, 1 is “Never,” 2 is “Infrequently,” 3 is “Sometimes,” 4 is “Often,” and 5 is “Regularly.” What that means is that email newsletters are ignored entirely by 48 people, read infrequently by 119, read sometimes by 363, read often by 687, and read regularly by 2,177.

The last column, “Rank,” is a calculation of the column number (1 through 5) multiplied by the number of votes in each column, all added together to provide a single method of comparison. The goal with Rank is to work around the problem that it’s difficult to scan the middle rows and make sense of the fact that nearly as many people said they never read discussion forums as those who read them often or regularly.

I’ve sorted this table and the corresponding chart by Rank, making it easy to see, in a bit of a tautology, that TidBITS readers, most of whom read TidBITS in email, get news via email newsletters frequently. Even without TidBITS itself skewing those results, email newsletters would likely be popular with our readers, many of whom have been using the Internet for a long time and would thus have stuck with habits formed before blogs, podcasts, and RSS were even conceived of. TidBITS readers also rely heavily on going to Web sites directly for information – sites like Macworld and MacFixIt are examples of sites you visit directly for news and information.

To my mind, what’s most telling about these results are the extremes; the people who never use a particular news source versus those who use one regularly. On the other end of the spectrum from email and direct visits to Web sites, we can see that TidBITS readers for the most part seldom rely on blogs, podcasts, or aggregator sites for their information.

There’s one significant anomaly that becomes obvious when the data is visualized as a stacked bar chart. In terms of pure rank, RSS ends up fairly low, but as you can see in the chart, that’s because RSS seems to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Lots of people never use RSS or do so only infrequently, and only a handful use it sometimes or often, but a rather large number of people rely on it regularly.

With that data in mind, I want to look at each of these methods of acquiring news, in terms of the user audience for whom each method makes sense, and the goals in using each method.

Email Newsletters — For many of us who have been on the Internet for years, email newsletters remain the best way to receive news and information. They’re mixed in with other messages, making it easy to read through as you deal with other mail. Plus, there’s a comfort in knowing that anything received and stored in your email archive can be found later. Email clients generally make it easy to read everything that appears.

But all these advantages work against email newsletters too. Many people are unsubscribing from mailing lists of all types in an effort to reduce email overload created by too many messages and the ever-increasing influx of spam. And while email clients make it easy to read mail, they seldom aid in skimming the contents of messages that you may not want to read in their entirety. My understanding is that while younger people always have email addresses, they’re much less likely to use them in favor of comment and discussion features in walled garden Web sites like MySpace or Facebook.

From a publisher’s point of view, I think email newsletters are incredibly valuable, because if someone invites you to contact them regularly via email, that’s a far more powerful communication channel than anything else. But managing a large mailing list, handling bounces, and dealing with subscription problems takes a non-trivial amount of time and effort, and once you’ve sent something out in email, you can’t update it or fix mistakes, as is possible with Web-based publications.

Web Sites — TidBITS readers go directly to Web sites for information nearly as much as they rely on email newsletters, which makes sense, since I suspect TidBITS readers are likely to have established a collection of must-visit sites to be read regularly. (I do this via a workspace in OmniWeb and by Command-clicking a folder of bookmarks in Safari to open numerous sites in tabs.) With many sites, the desired information appears on the initially loaded page, eliminating any need for further navigation. When you’re looking for headlines, a Web site provides them in their original context and intended presentation.

In short, a Web site remains the core of any publishing project, although to read Web sites effectively requires that you focus in on a relatively small set that you can digest in your available time.

Personal Email — I included personal email as a method of gathering news and information largely because it’s how I pick up on a large amount of what’s going on. It’s essentially electronic word-of-mouth, and works well because there’s nothing better than another person for evaluating what might interest you. In other words, using your actual friends and colleagues (not just other Internet users, as is done by social bookmarking sites like Digg and as editors is perhaps the most effective way to discover interesting news.

The problem, of course, is that you must have a large personal network of people who know what interests you and have sufficient incentive to alert you to important articles. Many people don’t have such a network, and thus must rely on other methods of discovering what’s hot.

Print Publications — Of course, print magazines and newspapers have long selected the news that most people read, and they remain unparalleled at that role, if only because they can hire professional editors who spend their lives determining what is and is not interesting. The downside is that print publications are generally not free – as with Internet-based content – and usually have advertising in addition to the subscription fees that offset the cost of printing and distribution.

The fact that TidBITS readers rely heavily on print publications fits with the demographics of the audience – older people are more likely to have established trusted sources of information, to have disposable income to spend on subscriptions, and to prefer reading on paper.

That said, print is a tough world, and we’re seeing publications that competed largely on timeliness moving entirely online in favor of a mixed print/online model. In my mind, the only way a print publication is likely to succeed in today’s world is if it’s publishing sufficiently in-depth content that readers want to devote all their attention to it in an offline environment. I could read The New Yorker online, but I far prefer to focus on its lengthy articles (nicely interspersed with cartoons) on paper while sitting on the couch.

Discussion Forums — I was initially a little confused that people rated discussion forums as highly as they did, until I considered that a discussion forum provides a large network of like-minded people. Sending a link to a bunch of friends individually requires effort and knowing lots of people. But on a discussion forum, it’s easy both to inform lots of people about interesting events quickly, and, on the consumption side, to read what others in the group think is interesting.

Relying on discussions in a mailing list or Web forum for news probably isn’t an effective way to learn what’s going on overall, but if you want to keep up on the discussions for other information-gathering reasons, the news that seeps in is likely highly topical and timely.

In-person — Very few of our respondents regularly get their news and information in person, which shouldn’t be surprising, if only because we’re likely to spend most of our time with people who have roughly the same sources of information that we do. However, this method of news acquisition ranked as highly as it did due to large numbers of people saying that they get information in-person infrequently or sometimes – perhaps at Macintosh user group meetings. In other words, talking with friends, relatives, and colleagues can provides the occasional bit of information, but few people rely heavily on word-of-mouth these days.

RSS Feeds — As I said before, TidBITS readers either use RSS (Really Simple Syndication) heavily or hardly at all – there’s no in-between. (And to answer the people who said they didn’t even know what RSS is, it’s a technology that any Web-enabled site can use to publish frequently updated information in a manner that many RSS programs, including Safari and the popular NetNewsWire, can present in a coherent, easily scanned display.)

I’ve been thinking about the bifurcation of the RSS numbers, and I think what’s going on is that signing up to receive an email newsletter is in essence an informal agreement that you’ll read whatever is sent. RSS embodies the other extreme, where your goal is to avoid reading as much as possible. I’ve heard from a number of people who subscribe to an insane number of feeds – often several hundred – and when I ask how they find the time to read all that content, they usually admit that they seldom read more than a tiny proportion of what comes through. But what’s important is that scanning all the headlines gives them a sense of what’s happening with a minimal time commitment.

As a result, I think RSS lends itself to use by specific professions and personality types. For instance, our editor Glenn Fleishman also runs a number of blogs related to Wi-Fi networking and other wireless technologies. To keep up with everything that’s happening, it’s important that he be able to scan a very large number of sites and publications with the understanding that most of what he sees won’t interest him at all. Anyone who finds themselves needing to extract needles from haystacks will find RSS useful. Similarly, there are people who aren’t so much looking for needles, but who need to know a very small amount about many different topics; if they discover that they need to know more, they’ll dive in further. Politicians may
fall into this category – even a local politician may find the quick RSS overview of local publications and blogs to be helpful in identifying areas that might become important.

For many people, though, RSS isn’t about either finding needles or getting the big picture for professional reasons. Instead, I think it meets a psychological need to feel informed, to feel as though you know what’s happening in the world, or at least in some specific subset of the world. People who feel this need are the sort who used to read (or at least skim) the New York Times from front to back every day. Personally, I think this is a dangerous need in today’s world, since the Internet can provide far more information – even just in headline form – than anyone can hope to absorb. But it’s something that news junkies are dealing with now, and will have to continue to deal with in the future, because the amount of news available will
continue to increase.

Aggregator Sites — The fact that TidBITS readers don’t use RSS much appears to carry over to aggregator sites such as MacSurfer and the new Apple Investor News, which is focused on business news related to Apple. These sites do a good job of collecting and presenting news headlines from elsewhere on the Web – often using RSS, in fact. I suspect the problem is the raw number of headlines, and just as with RSS, people can feel overwhelmed.

These sites become useful primarily when the headlines they choose to collect and the way they present them happen to resonate with the type of information you want and how you consume it.

Podcasts — Despite the hype of the last few years, podcasts have not made significant inroads with TidBITS readers as a way of acquiring news. Perhaps they’re not sufficiently oriented toward news (though some certainly are, such as Your Mac Life and the MacNotables podcast Tonya and I participate in), or not sufficiently timely (few are updated as frequently as Web publications), or not sufficiently professional – personal blogs seem to fall into roughly the same boat.

I love podcasts, but frankly, not very many of them. It’s not that most of them aren’t good, but that listening to audio is far more time-consuming than reading, and I simply don’t have time to keep up with many. Those who must suffer through long commutes or frequent travel, or who like to listen to iPods while exercising may have more time that can be spent listening to podcasts.

Personal Blogs — Bringing up the bottom of the list are personal blogs; it appears that the TidBITS readership doesn’t participate in a big way in the blogosphere, at least when it comes to news. I can’t say that I’m particularly taken aback by this result, since while individual blog posts may provide interesting insight into an event, more often than not, they merely point to an original article on another site. So unless you find a blogger whose interests parallel yours, and who is particularly effective at noticing those events that you want to read about, relying on a personal blog would seem a relatively haphazard approach to learning about what’s happening.

Other — In the event that we missed entire ways that people obtain Mac-related news and information, our survey solicited reader suggestions as well. Most suggestions were specific examples of a method of obtaining news, but a few bona fide trends emerged.

  • Books. Because we were thinking about frequently updated news and information, we didn’t include books among the answers, but readers said that books remain a significant way in which they learn more about the Mac. Can’t argue with that!
  • Conferences. Similarly, we didn’t think about conferences, which generally occur too infrequently to be useful from a news perspective. But of course, conferences are a great source of less timely information, and Macworld Expo in particular was cited as a key source.
  • Search engines. Although search engines are really just a way of finding particular Web sites, enough people mentioned using Google to search for Mac-related information that I decided to include it here. With a search engine, you’re waiting to look for information until you need it, rather than letting it come to you, but that’s a totally legitimate (and perhaps more sane) method of learning.
  • Apple Stores. Lastly, quite a few people mentioned that they learn at Apple Stores, either in the classes or from staffers at the Genius Bars. Although that would seem to fall into the “In-person” category, it feels sufficiently different to be called out. The fact that Apple Stores have turned into a useful informational resource is impressive, and Apple deserves credit for making them work beyond the realm of commerce.

Future Analysis — That’s it for this time; as I continue to pore through the results of the reader survey I’ll write more about the specific places you acquire your information, the kinds of articles you like in TidBITS, and what you’d like to see more of.

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