What the "sports fans love the print section" study doesn't tell you


The headline on Twitter, from the Poynter Institute, caught my eye: Report: Sports fans like print newspapers. I sent out the link, which instantly got retweeted by a lot of people.

I think it says something we all want to believe - that print newspapers still matter. That despite all this digital hubbub, that print is still THE go-to source for sports fans. It's the ultimate validation of our traditional journalistic worldview.

But is it really?

I looked up the original study to get a better idea of what this study actually shows. Because I was skeptical. I didn't know if this study actually showed what I think we all wanted it to show - or thought that it showed.

Here's one man's breakdown of the study:

  • It's from the Newspaper National Network. The stated research goal of the study is: "To explore the unique value/benefits of the Sports Section of Newspapers to sports fans." Right there, that's a HUGE red flag for me for the study. This is a study conducted by a newspaper advocacy group, a study that the stated goal is to (basically) promote the sports sections of newspapers. So right off the bat, this tells me that this study is probably going to have good news for newspapers, no matter what.
  • The study is a survey of 404 self-identified male sports fans. No problem with the size or the fact that they're sports fans. But only male? That makes no sense. At all. You've just limited yourself to half the population, and you're assuming that women don't read the sports pages or care about sports news. More importantly, and this is basic quantitative research, you can't make generalizable conclusions about the value of the sports pages when you're only surveying men.
  • The money finding: When asked "Please select all of the places you typically go to for sports news, information, and/or analysis, not including live games or competitions," the print newspaper sports section was the top answer, with 69 percent. SportsCenter and the local TV news were second and third with 45 and 42 percent, respectively. Pretty straightforward, right? Sort of. If you look at all the choices, there are no online sites listed. Let me repeat that: For a media study conducted in 2013, there are no online sites listed. So yeah, print tops the list. It's called the "traditional" sports media. But leaving the internet off as a news source is incredibly flawed and biased. It leads to a misleading conclusion.
  • The key finding in this study is hidden, I think: For the digital portion of the "Please select all of the places you typically go to for sports news, information, and/or analysis, not including live games or competitions," question, the sports section of the newspaper website is the "go-to" source with 76 percent of respondents. ESPN.com is second with 65 percent. So when you examine attitudes toward online news, the local paper's website is the most important source for sports news. That's an important finding. Because there's this assumption that goes through the industry that news organizations should cover local first, because we can get the national news on ESPN. And that's true. But this study suggests that a newspaper's online edition is the most important place for local sports fans to get their news - even more so than ESPN. It suggests (again, we can't conclude anything, because of their dumb sampling strategy) that perhaps we in the industry have been undervaluing our online editions. Rather than a repurposed print site, perhaps the sites should be the digital hub for sports news in your area.
  • Look at those last two bullet points again. They're the same question - NNN broke it up for digital and non-digital in reporting the answers, but it's the same question (Question No. 10). So while the headline is that sports fans like newspapers' print editions, print is actually third in importance, behind the newspapers' online edition and ESPN.com. It looks like they broke the answers up along traditional/digital lines simply to make the print sports section look good - to be able to claim in a headline that print is tops among sports fans, when even in this potentially flawed study, it's actually third.

In all, I find this study to be potentially interesting but also incredibly flawed. It's a study conducted by a newspaper advocacy group seemingly designed to provide good news about the newspaper industry. It only surveyed men, which is problematic. I think it is interesting to note that a newspaper's online edition is the "go-to source" for sports news, beating all other media outlets. But to claim print is the go-to source for sports news is misleading. It tells us what I think a lot of us what to hear, but I'm not quite sure that's what's actually true.