March 14, 2012

How many people still read real books on the subway?


Romenesko gets new details on a regular report issued by Howard Polskin’s “one-man research firm” The Tab Farm, which charts what passengers are reading on New York’s subways. (Or at least on the R, N and W trains in mid-town Manhattan). The number of people reading real books on the train seems to hover between 15 and 20 percent. And, as you might expect: tablet, smart phone, and e-reader usage has jumped hugely over the last three years.

Peeking at one of Polskin’s “Mobile Media Consumption Reports” from October 2009, I see that just 1 percent of riders were using e-readers, while in his 3/5/2012 report e-reader usage is up to 6 percent. Given the size of the sample, the numbers fluctuate significantly from week to week, but Polskin cleverly trumps this as real news. (“Magazines and books posted 3% gains in usage.”) But there is at least one definitive fact in the survey: “For the record, I have not seen a Discman or Walkman in the more than two years I have been recording this information on and off,” he writes.

How does Polskin do it? The reports, he says:

… are based on my own observations during my daily commute to and from work. In the morning I get on the subway at 60th and Third in Manhattan and I take the R, N or W train two stops to 57th and 7th. The train is a pretty good cross section of New York City commuters because it’s coming from Queens and it picks up more affluent riders at the first stop in Manhattan. I do the reverse commute at the end of the day. I try to record all media consumption activity I observe in two cars. If the car is too crowded, I settle for just one car. I have a small clipboard where I record the consumption by hand (breaking it down by day and morning and evening). A few people have actually stopped me when I’m doing my research and asked if I’m recording the way people are using their devices.

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.