Based on a survey of 6,989 individuals aged 60 and up from six countries (Austria, Denmark, Israel, the Netherlands, Romania and Spain), this study aimed at exploring the extent to which digital media practices complement and/or replace print media among older internet users. Results indicated a relative strength of print media among this audience and pointed to four differentiated sub-segments: hybrid readers—who comprised the majority of sample respondents—, heavy print readers, heavy online readers and non-readers. The segment type significantly associated with sociodemographic characteristics. The findings indicate that older readers are not a homogenous group and that their reading habits are affected by a complex configuration of factors: technological features of different media, specific individual psychosocial needs, unequal allocation of cultural capital among varied social groups that results in different levels and types of literacy, and—at least to some extent—idiosyncratic cultural and political conditions in each country.
The frequent, rapid and unprecedented changes in communication technologies during the last two decades have exerted irreversible changes on both reading habits and consumption patterns of other media. Although in many countries the majority of individuals aged 65 and over already use the internet (Anderson and Perrin, 2017; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2017), they tend to adhere to familiar media practices and simultaneously make intense use of traditional media (Depp, Schkade, Thompson, and Jeste, 2010; Fox, 2015; Nimrod, 2017).
A cross-European study of print media use among internet users found a significant positive correlation between advanced age and heavy use of print media (Nossek, Adoni, and Nimrod, 2015). The extent to which digital media practices complement and/or replace print media among their most loyal users is still unclear, however.
As such, the primary goal of this study was to investigate reading as cultural behavior among older internet users and to examine the interaction between use of print and equivalent digital media. Our first assumption was that books and newspapers, both print and digital, constitute an integral part of the media environment. Consequently, reading as cultural behavior cannot be studied and understood separately from use of other media. Hence, we explored older adults’ reading patterns in light of their use of various traditional and newer, digital media. Second, we posited that media systems and the idiosyncratic cultural and political conditions in each country have some effect on audiences’ consumption of various media. For this reason, we examined similarities and differences in reading habits of older readers in different countries and their interaction with the institutional context in which this practice takes place.
The complex phenomenon of reading in general and in later life in particular may be explored from different points of view and accordingly requires convergence of several theoretical approaches: Technological, functional, gerontological and sociological (theories focusing on culture and lifestyle). The technological approach, conventionally associated with Harold Innis (Innis, 1951) and Marshall McLuhan (McLuhan, 1962, 2003), asserts that the dominant media technologies in a given historical era are replaced by new media if and when they cease fulfilling their societal functions. In his influential books, McLuhan predicted that television would displace the “old” print media that influenced the social, cultural and political structure of the nation-states. Indicators of the displacement of print media would include a significant decrease in production and distribution of print material as well as a decline in the reading public’s time allotted to reading and the frequency of reading print media.
The rapid development of digital media and the universal adoption of the social media challenged media scholars to organize and reframe the technological determinism. Following McLuhan’s disciples (Levinson, 1999), they suggested a new conception of technological determinism emphasizing the aspect of continuum in contrast to the earlier notions of dichotomy between “old” and “new” media at any time point (De la Cruz Paragas and Lin, 2016). The empirical research (Baron, 2015; Qureshi, 2014) demonstrated that on the continuum of technological determinism, there are indeed many possibilities of interrelationship among various media, and they often differ from one society to another. Specifically print books and—to a somewhat lesser extent—print newspapers demonstrated a high level of resilience in the new digital environment (Nossek and Adoni, 2006, Nossek et al., 2015).
Several recent studies of older audiences found that the technological aspects of traditional and digital media are most important in determining their respective resilience or adoption by older adults. For example, Quan-Haase, Martin and Schreurs (2016) found that even among ‘digital seniors’ who are already online there is a permanent tension between ingrained and novel practices required by digital media technologies. They suggested three key technological factors affecting older readers’ adoption of digital media: longing for the materiality of print, confidence in their media literacy, and technology exploration. Seniors strive to explore digital reading devices because they are well aware of the benefits of e-books and e-readers (such as tablet computers or smartphones), especially portability, convenience and lower prices. They do miss the touch and smell of print media, however, as well as the opportunity for sharing and lending to which this population is accustomed. They are interested in digital technologies, yet do not have much confidence in their technological skills; a majority believes that these technologies are more suitable for younger people (Broady, Chan, and Caputi, 2010). In a recent study, Nimrod (2017) reported that even tech-savvy older internet users are indeed significantly more inclined to use traditional mass media than newer, digital media technologies.
The second central approach to consumption research, grounded in functional theory, is the uses and gratifications approach that addresses the different psychosocial functions of media use, including those of reading. Its underlying assumption posits the existence of an active consumer audience attempting to satisfy its psychosocial needs through selective exposure to media and specific content (Blumer and Katz, 1974; Katz and Adoni, 1973; Katz et al., 2000; McQuail and Windahl, 1993; Rosengren, Palmgreen, and Wenner, 1985). Consequently, in contrast to the technological approach that stresses competition among different media, the functional approach emphasizes a possible coexistence. Studies based on this approach found that each communications medium specializes in gratifying certain types of needs, resulting in a functional division of labor among them (Adoni, 1985) or a kind of synergy (Neuman, 1986, 1991). They also demonstrated the displacement phenomenon among the different media, suggesting that functional exchangeability is the chief reason for displacement of one medium by another newer one (Himmelweit and Swift, 1976; Katz, Gurevitch, and Hass, 1973; Rosengren and Windahl, 1972).
The radical transformation of the media scene gave a new impetus to the uses and gratifications theory and related empirical research (Ruggiero, 2000), as it compelled scholars to deal with both digital media with characteristics different to those of traditional media, and with social needs which they catered for such as self-presentation, participation and social interaction with other individuals and virtual communities (Gallion, 2010; Karimi, Khodabandelou, Ehsani, and Ahmad, 2014; Quan-Haase and Leigh Young, 2010; Ruggiero, 2000; Salihu, Latiff, and Ismail, 2015; Whiting and Williams, 2013).
As early as 2001, Adoni and Nossek (2001) suggested that where functional equivalence exists, one medium may make another obsolete while creating optimal circumstances for the substitution or displacement of its predecessor, possibly causing a significant decline in production, distribution and consumption of the displaced medium. By contrast, functional differentiation or a low degree of functional equivalence creates circumstances in which both types of media may coexist or even converge to one medium. This situation will be characterized by stability or even growth in the production and supply of both traditional and new media, and their continued or perhaps increased consumption and use by individual consumers. These hypotheses were corroborated in our later research when traditional media were already engaged in a heavy competition with the digital ones (Nossek et al., 2015)
Earlier research shows that reading print newspapers gratified needs for information, orientation and interpretation, while entertainment and professional magazines were considered community integrators. Book reading as cultural behavior fulfilled more personal psychosocial needs and enhances ethno-cultural and national identities (Adoni and Nossek, 2007, 2013). In the present context, it is important to note the low degree of functional equivalence between reading activity and other media consumption (Adoni and Nossek, 2001). In other words, reading as a cultural practice satisfied a few important personal and social needs better than any other medium, possibly accounting for both its continuous resilience in the new media environment, and the slow but steady increase in adoption of newer digital reading devices.
Research also indicates that the principal reading benefits among seniors are coping with loneliness and stress as well as maintaining contact with society at large (Luyt and Ho Swee, 2011). Paradoxically, although reading books is a solitary activity, it serves as a basis for social interaction through sharing them and discussing their content. Book reading is indeed positively correlated with participation in social events. In comparison to younger age groups, seniors tend to read more print newspapers and magazines than print books and to use more digital news sources than they do e-books and e-readers (Nossek et al., 2015). The central function of this type of reading is information.
Television viewing is very popular among older adults and is often rated before reading as a preferred activity. Their favorite television programs are news and public affairs, while entertainment content is clearly in second place (Van der Goot, Beentjes, and Van Selm, 2012). However, there is a clear growth in mobile news use among seniors. For example, in 2017, about two thirds of American seniors obtained news via mobile devices (Bialik and Matsa, 2017). One possible explanation is that this informative content fulfills the function of staying relevant and keeping in touch with rapidly changing social realities.
The functions which various media play in older adults’ lives may be examined via the prism of gerontological theories aiming to explain what it means to be ‘well’ in later life and how people age well (Steverink, 2014). Theories focusing on what aging well means refer to old age as a period in which the individual is physically, cognitively and mentally challenged and define aging well as confronting these challenges successfully. Rowe and Kahn (1998), for example, suggested that continuous engagement with life is one of the key aspects of successful aging, and Ryff (2017) discussed self-acceptance, positive relationships, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life and personal growth as the central components of wellbeing in later life. The information offered by print media and the experience of reading in itself may support preservation of these elements and thus enhance the wellbeing of older readers.
Theories concentrating on how people age well tend to define success as making the best of what one has rather than achieving a specific objective level of functioning. One good example of the latter approach is the Continuity Theory (Atchley, 1999), which posits that continuity is a primary adaptive strategy for dealing with changes associated with normal aging. Consequently, continuous reading patterns may help older readers maintain continuity of psychological and social patterns adopted over the years (e. g., attitudes, opinions, personality, preferences, and behavior). Another example is the Innovation Theory (Nimrod, 2016), according to which new activities may promote wellbeing in later life. Although reading is usually not a new activity, using new devices for reading and/or consuming new content may offer a sense of renewal and growth.
Sociology of culture theories relate to both macro- and micro-social processes. On the macro level, they explore the role of cultural texts in the social construction of national and religious identities, as elaborated by Anderson (1983) in his widely acclaimed work, Imagined communities. James Carey’s (2009) approach to communication as culture postulated that both the content of various media and the range of social contexts in which it is consumed constitute an important part of the national heritage of each community and serve as a basis for construction of socio-cultural identity, social integration, as well as delineation of the boundaries between “us” and “others”. Both Anderson and Carey discussed the importance of the cultural text and the social context, irrespective of the specific medium by which it is produced and disseminated. This proposition is a basis for our assumption that the shared content of books and digital platforms is a decisive factor in understanding reading as cultural behavior in the digital era.
On the micro level of the individual, Bourdieu (1984, 1990) suggested that a key function of cultural consumption is the social construction of distinctions among different groups in society based on the individual’s cultural capital. While the content of reading can be associated with both high and popular culture, reading in general and book reading in particular is considered an activity requiring a rather high level of cultural capital for two key reasons: First, reading requires rudimentary levels of reading and writing skills, termed “traditional literacy”, acquired through a long process of study; second, reading of complex texts that are part of the canonic culture requires a high cultural capital, obtained via familial and social status group socialization (Bourdieu, 1984, 1990; Gans, 1985).
By contrast, media literacy, which is associated with the comprehension of television content based on knowledge of, and familiarity with the dominant conventions and genres of the audio-visual media, is acquired as of early childhood by watching television and may develop without any direct investment by young viewers, parents or caregivers. The use of digital technologies requires a new type of convergent literacy integrating the two forms of literacy referred to above with new elements of basic computer expertise and interactive communication skills. Traditional literacy facilitates the acquisition of the new type of convergent literacy and is in fact a sine qua non for the sophisticated use of the digital media (Adoni, 1995; Adoni and Nossek, 2001; Liu and Ko, 2016).
In fact, recent research focuses on both the effect of schooling environment (Andersen, 2015) and the family habitus on cultural capital. Although the findings show that education does contribute to individuals’ cultural capital, the parental model is still the strongest factor in determining individual’s favorite leisure activities including reading. Kraaykamp (2003), Nagel and Verboord (2012), and Gayo (2016) corroborate Bourdieu’s original hypothesis of reproduction of cultural behavior from one generation to another and continuation over life time. Their findings demonstrated that parental reading habits influence their children’s frequency of reading, their library use and their reading preferences and literary taste. Of course, we must also consider a kind of “digital inequality” between both younger and older readers concerning the capacity to adopt new technologies (Broady et al., 2010; DiMaggio and Nathan, 2005; Haight, Quan-Haase, and Corbett, 2014; Zickuhr and Smith, 2012).
Reading as cultural behavior is also connected to another central notion in Bourdieu’s theory (1984), that of lifestyle in everyday life. Niemela, Huotari and Kortelainen (2012) explored media use that leads to “enactment” of older adults, that is, their taking action in concrete daily activities. They found that media use, including reading, influenced their lifestyle by leading to four types of direct or indirect engagement: general routines and housework, health lifestyle, cognitive tasks such as reading and interaction with others.
Cross-cultural differences in reading practice may be examined via the prism of theories on typologies of media systems that in turn may increase our understanding of the interaction between structural aspects of media systems and reading practices in different countries. In their seminal study that compared media systems based on relations between the press and the political system, Hallin and Mancini (2004) depicted three models of Western media systems: Liberal North Atlantic (Great Britain, Ireland, and the USA), Democratic Corporatist (Germany, Austria, and the Scandinavian countries), and Mediterranean Polarized Pluralist (Greece, Italy, France, Portugal, and Spain).
As a result of radical changes in both the political system (emergence of post-communist countries) and communication technologies (Couldry and Hepp, 2017), several attempts were made to update this typology (Brüggemann, Engesser, Buchel, Humprecht, and Castro, 2014; Chadwick, 2013) by taking new variables into account that are relevant to the digital and globalized media environment (Qureshi, 2014). Whereas some (e. g., Brüggemann et al., 2014) dealt with Western countries as a whole, Peruško, Vozab and Cuvalo (2015) and Peruško (2017) considered only EU countries, including new EU members in Central and Eastern Europe. They suggested four composite dimensions that define the digital media environment: institutional inclusiveness, digital media market, media culture, and globalization. Based on a quantitative operationalization of these dimensions, their research depicted four models of media landscape: Inclusive, Convergent, Peripheral, and Non-Inclusive (see Appendix).
The participating countries in the present research are representative of three of four types: Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands as Inclusive, Spain as Convergent, and Romania as Peripheral. Israel’s media environment did not completely fit any of these models and was defined as a transitional media system between Convergent and Inclusive. In this study, our challenge was to examine the possible interaction between older adults’ reading and consumption of other media, and the characteristics of the media landscape in each participating country.
The study was conducted in the context of Ageing + Communication + Technology (ACT), a project that addresses the transformation of the experiences of aging with the proliferation of new forms of mediated communications in networked societies. The study was based on a survey of internet users aged 60 and up. This age limit was set in accordance with the United Nations’ (2017) official definition of old age. Data were collected in six countries (Austria, Denmark, Israel, the Netherlands, Romania, and Spain) by local and international commercial firms. With the exception of Romania, where the survey was conducted via the telephone due to a low rate of internet usage among the older population, all firms applied an online survey. Study participants were reached out to by the firms, and age and gender quotas were instituted to ensure that each sample is representative of each country’s older online population.
The overall sample size consisted of 6,989 internet users aged 60 and over. As mentioned above, the study population was defined according to age but it was certainly not homogeneous. Participants’ ages ranged from 60 to 101, with a mean of 67.01 years (sd=5.75), of whom 53.2 % were male, and 72.2 % were married. Forty-nine percent of the participants had at least some post-secondary education, 37.6 % reported having income higher than the average in their country, and 42.7 % declared their income to be lower than average. Seventy-one percent were retirees, and 14.3 % worked full-time.
These demographics might be responsible for additional differences between parts of this population regarding free time, cultural capital and physical difficulties in reading. With nearly 15 % of the population still working, free time was probably higher in older age groups and in higher Socio-Economic Status (SES) groups. In addition, difficulties in reading (sight problems) increase with age and may have negatively influenced the time allocated to reading. Cultural capital, including traditional and digital literacy, is significantly connected to SES and years of schooling of each individual and the general economic and educational level in each country. These demographic variables were included in the data analysis, and the interpretation of the results took into account the individual differences regarding free time, cultural capital and difficulties in reading as well as the differences across the participating countries.
The study applied a questionnaire that was tested and validated by Jensen and Helles (2015) in a major cross-European audience research. This questionnaire had validated translations into German, Danish, and Hebrew. Translations into Spanish, Romanian, and Dutch were done by the current research team. To validate the translations, native English-speaking persons re-translated them into English. This process was repeated until the re-translations were identical to the original English version.
The present investigation addressed several parts of the data, referring to the following issues:
Media use the day before responding to the survey: Using time-budget research methodology, respondents were asked to think about the previous day and report how much time they spent using various media. Since the data collection in different countries was done in the course of one month, the distribution of the reported days was random and thus nullified the impact of different holidays or special days in the participating countries. This part of the questionnaire was split into two sections: one relating to traditional mass media (e. g., TV, radio, newspapers) and differentiating between old media and digital/internet-based use (via computer and mobile phone), while the second considered various internet-based activities such as use of social network services, blogging, and playing online games.
Types of print newspapers read and location of use: Respondents were presented with a list of various types of newspapers (e. g., daily international, national, and local newspapers) and were asked to indicate which types they read. They were also given a list of at-home (e. g., in the living room) and out-of-home (e. g., while traveling) locations and were asked to mark all those applying to their own use of newspapers.
Leisure preferences: Respondents were given a list of 14 leisure activities and were asked to indicate the three they were most likely to choose if they had a few hours of free time.
Background questionnaire: The questionnaire examined the following demographic and socio-demographic variables: gender, age, family status, education, income, employment status, and country of residence.
Data were analyzed using SPSS v.24 software. We used descriptive statistics (e. g., frequencies, ratios, crosstabs and chi-square tests) and Pearson correlations to determine the position of print media relative to equivalent digital media and their use in comparison to that of other media. As the countries involved in the study were not equally represented in the sample, weights were used to correct for over- or under-representation. Exploration of segments within the older media audience was accomplished by performing a cluster analysis of all data regarding reading activities the day before responding to the survey. One-way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) and Fisher’s Least Significant Difference (LSD) tests were used to examine differences in media use among the clusters. The next stage used crosstabs and chi-square tests to identify the differential representation of the various countries in each such segment. Finally, as differences in media use could be affected by various background factors, a series of logistic regressions was conducted in which the dependent variables were cluster types, and the independent variables were various socio-demographic parameters and country of residence. Categorical variables were dummy-coded for this purpose. Unless otherwise stated, all reported findings below are significant at or above the .05 level.
The state of print media among older audiences
An examination of reported use of print media the day before responding to the survey (Table 1) demonstrated a relative strength of print newspapers in comparison to their digital alternatives. The rate of participants who reported reading online newspapers was lower than that of print newspapers (48.6 % vs. 64.0 %) as well as the mean use time (54.28 vs. 69.29 minutes among users), yet both measures were relatively high. Other online news channels were even more popular than online newspapers, with 55.5 % of the sample reporting using them the day before the survey for 54.74 minutes on average. By contrast, the percentage of participants reporting reading digital books was much lower than that of books in print (11.9 % vs. 41.3 %), but the overall mean use time was similar (83.90 vs. 88.26 minutes).
Mean use time among users (min.)
Mean use time among sample (min.)
Newspapers – print
Newspapers – online
Obtaining news online from other sources
Books – print
Books – digital
Correlations between reported use times of various mass media (Table 2) revealed many significant but weak associations. The strongest correlations were among reading-related media, especially between print newspapers and books (r=.257), and between online newspapers and other online sources of news (r=.255). The correlation between online newspapers and digital books was also relatively high (r=.163). While there was no significant association between print and online newspapers, the use of other online sources of news significantly associated with both. The associations between reading-related media and other mass media uses were generally low (Pearson correlation ≤ .15 in all cases), and the lowest number of significant correlations was found for digital books.
Newspapers in print
Digital news sites
Books – print
Books – digital
Newspapers in print
Digital news sites
Books – print
Books – digital
TV – TV set
TV – new formats
Radio – radio set
Radio – new formats
Significance levels: ***p < 0.001, **p < 0.01, *p < 0.05.
Print newspaper consumption data revealed that among the various types of newspapers, national daily newspapers were the most prevalent type (read by 48.1 % of the sample), followed by free newspapers (42.5 %) and local daily newspapers (41.8 %). There were many differences among the six countries examined in this study regarding the reported use of various types of newspapers (Table 3). The percentages of participants who reported that they read national daily newspapers were highest in Austria (67.1 %) and Israel (55.0 %) and lowest in Romania (28.8 %). Austria also had the highest percentage of local and international newspaper use (50.3 % and 6.8 %, respectively), while Romania was also last in usage rates of free newspapers, magazines/periodicals, and weekly newspapers (4.5 %, 16.6 %, and 10.1 %). Israel and The Netherlands had the highest percentage of respondents who reported reading free newspapers (66.1 % and 54.8 %, respectively). The Netherlands also had the highest percentage of magazine and periodical readers (60.0 %), and Denmark displayed the highest weekly newspaper use rate (77.5 %). The percentage of respondents who reported reading international daily newspapers was extremely low in all participating countries.
National daily newspapers
Local daily newspapers
Magazines / periodicals
International daily newspapers
There were also significant differences among users of various types of newspapers with regard to location of use. In all cases, the percentage of users indicating at-home locations (especially the living room) was significantly higher than that of readers reporting out-of-home locations (especially during transport and in public locations). Yet, the rate of newspaper readers from Spain reporting at-home locations was significantly lower than that of study participants from other countries (71.6 % vs. 91.9 %-96.1 %). The rate of respondents reporting out-of-home locations was highest for Spain (62.1 %), followed by Israel and Austria (51 % and 50.5 %), whereas their rates in other countries were much lower (19.4 %-23.5 %).
Sub-segments among older audiences according to reading patterns
The reading-related data were subjected to a k-means cluster analysis, which specified the groups with similar reading patterns. The analysis built on five relevant measures of use time, so that each sub-segment could share between one and five common practices. It explored five possible solutions (from three to seven clusters) and produced an optimal solution (based on distinctiveness) of four clusters based on use of print media and their digital equivalents (Table 4). The first cluster, labeled hybrid readers, reported relatively light use of all five media with a mean overall reported reading time of 116.60 minutes. As this group comprised most sample respondents (76.8 %), it represents the typical older user of print media and their equivalents. An additional group was that of non-readers, who did not use any of the reading-related media the day before the survey. This group included 10 % of the sample respondents.
The two remaining clusters, labeled heavy print readers and heavy online readers, were also relatively small (14.1 % and 8.2 %, respectively). The first was characterized primarily by heavy use of print newspapers and books (77.11 and 159.47 minutes), and the cluster’s mean overall reported time devoted to reading was 305.86 minutes. The heavy online readers made the most intensive use of online newspapers (103.00 minutes), other online news sources (165.01 minutes) and digital books (32.69 minutes). Their time spent reading print media was significantly lower than that of the heavy print readers. Overall, however, this cluster’s mean reported time devoted to reading was the highest of all (377.31 minutes).
Heavy print readers
Heavy digital readers
Newspapers – print
Newspapers – online
Obtaining news online
Books – print
Books – digital
Total use time
Percentage of sample
Note: Data represent the mean number of reported minutes spent on the use of each medium the day before taking part in the survey. Means that are significantly different according to LSD tests are denoted by the letters a, b, c and d.
The various clusters were not equally represented in the six countries examined in this study (Figure 1). The Netherlands and Austria had the highest rates and Romania had the lowest rate of hybrid readers, Israel and Denmark had the highest rates and Romania had the lowest rate of heavy print readers, and The Netherlands and Romania had a relatively low percentage of heavy online readers. The most noticeable difference, however, was found with regard to the non-readers: Whereas Austria had a marginal rate (1.3 %) of respondents of this cluster, 30.3 % of the Romanian study participants reported no reading activities the day before the survey. These findings were in line with respondents’ leisure preferences. The percentage of respondents who indicated “reading books, newspapers and magazines” as one of the three activities that they were most likely to choose if they had a few hours of free time was highest in Austria (54.2 %) and lowest in Romania (17.1 %).
As the cross-national differences in media use could be affected by various background factors, the countries were dummy-coded and used as independent variables in a series of logistic regressions, with the cluster types as dependent variables. Other independent variables were sex, age, family status, education, income, and employment status. A summary of the analyses is presented in Table 5.
Being a hybrid reader was positively correlated with being male, working at least to some extent, and residing in Austria and The Netherlands, and negatively correlated with older age and living in Romania. Belonging to the heavy print reader group was positively associated with being older, having higher education, and living in Israel, Denmark and Austria. It was negatively associated with being male, higher income, working, and residing in Romania. Strong predictors of belonging to the heavy online readers included being male and living in countries other than The Netherlands and Romania. Being a non-reader was positively correlated with higher income and residence in Romania, and negatively associated with higher education and living in Austria, Denmark, and Israel.
Heavy print readers
Heavy online readers
Significance levels: ***p<0.001, **p<0.01, *p<0.05.
Note: Regressions were binary logistic, with cluster affiliation (1=yes, 0=no) as the dependent variable. All independent variables except age were dummy-coded: Gender: 1=male, 0=female; Family status: 1=married with children, 0=other; Education: 1=some post-secondary education, 0=lower education level; Income: 1=higher than average, 0=similar to average or below; Employment status: 1=full or part time, 0=other (unemployed or retiree), “Country”: 1=yes, 0=no (reference = Spain).
The most salient finding of our study is that older internet users—who may be considered the ‘transitional’ generation that was living before and during the digital revolution—are not giving up the use of print media so easily, although they already master digital literacy, and are able to read e-books, e-readers and online newspapers (Blank and Groselj, 2014). Most study participants (three quarters of our sample) were concentrated in the cluster defined as hybrid readers, allotting a moderate amount of time to reading from both digital and print platforms. The cluster called heavy print readers accounted for less than a fifth of the sample but devoted much time to reading, while the heavy digital readers consisted of less than ten percent of the sample, the same as participants who did not read at all.
Among this reading public, there was a significant correlation between reading print newspapers and print books, as both require the same traditional literacy. A significant but not particularly high correlation was found between print books and e-books, which share similar content yet differ in their technological features and the digital literacy required for their use. Like recent studies of the general population (e. g., Barthel, 2016; Nossek et al., 2015), the present study found online papers and other online sources of news very popular, but reading print books was still far more common than reading digital books. The first two reading activities were highly correlated, and both were also associated with reading digital books. This was not surprising as the technological platforms and formats are rather similar for all three platforms and require a high degree of digital literacy. Interestingly, however, no significant association was found between print and online newspapers, while the use of other online sources of news was significantly correlated with both. This finding suggests that at this stage, online newspapers are not displacing print newspapers and that various online sources of news complement both print and online newspapers.
Possible interpretations of these findings are anchored in the four theoretical approaches elaborated above: Technological, functional, gerontological and sociological, with emphasis on cultural consumption. Online editions of newspapers are often substantially different from their print versions because they place greater emphasis on visual aspects of news and are updated constantly with no fixed deadline. For older readers, these new technologies may thus fulfill both the traditional need for information and psychosocial needs for active social and political participation, although the digital counterparts of the print newspapers did not seriously threaten the existence of print newspapers.
Unlike print newspapers and their online equivalents, the text of a given book published in digital form or in print is exactly the same. There are, of course, some e-books with open texts that include links to other sites, but to date these remain the exception. From a functional point of view (Katz et al., 2000; Nossek and Adoni, 2009), we may assume that the same reading material offered in two different technological forms will provide rather similar gratification of readers’ personal psychosocial needs. As elaborated above, literary content fulfills needs such as recreation, aesthetic experience and escapism as well as the development of one’s social identity and a sense of belonging to a larger social collective (Anderson, 1983; Carey, 2009; Nossek and Adoni, 2009). Nevertheless, despite the similarity of content disseminated in print books and e-books, the former are still far more popular than the latter.
One possible interpretation is anchored in the technological approach to communication (Benjamin, 1969; Kitch, 2009; Watson and Blondheim, 2009). Identical content notwithstanding, print and digital book publications constitute two completely different technologies, and preference for either of them may well be a function of such differences. The digital book has many attractive features, especially for older readers: Once a relatively inexpensive digital reading device is acquired, digital books are cheaper and more easily available than their print counterparts; they save storage space, meet the needs of the visually challenged, and are easily transportable. Despite these advantages, however, their penetration has been slow and has not hinted at a total displacement of print books (Desilver, 2014; Zickuhr and Rainie, 2014).
Various studies mentioned above (e. g., Quan-Haase et al., 2016) clearly demonstrated that readers tend to prefer the book as a tangible object. Readers may favor specific features of print, such as the smell and touch of paper and various book formats. They may also view their books as art objects and enjoy them as such. From the point of view of sociology of culture, it is also well documented (Bourdieu, 1984; Escarpit, 1971) that books as objects serve as signifiers of high social status. Even in the current digital age, an impressive home library attests to the higher status of its owner (Yamane, 2014). Moreover, many people like to read the ‘right’ print books and magazines in public, thereby asserting their social milieu and aspirations (Yamane, 2014).
Finally, it is possible that many older readers, even after acquiring digital literacy (Schreurs, Quan-Haase, and Martin, 2017), still feel more comfortable with traditional literacy, which constitutes an integral part of the cultural capital they have acquired during their early socialization in their societal habitus (Adoni and Nossek, 2001; Bourdieu, 1984). While reading online newspapers requires relatively little time, when it comes to reading books for pleasure, older readers tend to prefer the use of traditional literacy in the familiar format of the print book (Nimrod, 2017).
The older readers are not a homogeneous consumer group (Quan-Haase, Martin, and Schreurs, 2014), and their reading habits and the use of various media are determined to a large extent by their demographic characteristics and social background (Nimrod, 2017). As expected according to research based on sociology of culture (Bourdieu, 1984) and many other earlier studies on reading publics (e. g., Adoni and Nossek, 2007; Katz et al., 2000), the best predictive indicator for reading was the cultural capital of readers as operationalized in their level of education and socioeconomic status. Furthermore, according to our findings and many other studies conducted in Western countries (e. g., Rainie and Perrin, 2015; Rainie, Zickuhr, Purcell, Madden, and Brenner, 2012), women tend to read books, especially fiction, more than men. This may be a historical consequence of the activities of the 18th century bourgeois female reading public—the first to adopt reading fiction as an important component of recreation and leisure (Watt, 1963).
The four theoretical perspectives elaborated in the first part of this paper contribute to a better understanding of the situation regarding both print and digital reading. From the technological perspective, there are different merits to print and digital platforms. From the functional perspective, the two types of reading fulfill different functions, and from the gerontological angle both support a sense of continuity and change alike and thus contribute to wellbeing. Finally, according to the sociology of culture, inequality in social status and consequently in level of literacy affects readers’ choices of both their preferred reading platforms and their favorite content. This leads to the understanding that in terms of media exchangeability, the functional equivalence between print reading and digital reading is low. Hence, we may expect that both practices will continue in the new digital environment.
In the theoretical part of this paper, we briefly reviewed recent attempts to create typologies of various media environments that would allow for more comprehensive insight into the possibilities of institutional framings of country comparisons. Different studies arrived at different country groupings (the result of a variety of indices and countries) (Brüggemann et al., 2014; Peruško et al., 2015). Our study indeed observed some minor differences among the countries characterized by different media systems, although they were not always consistent and clear.
The various clusters of readers were not equally represented in the six countries examined in this study. These findings, however, were only partially consistent with the classification of countries according to the type of media environment (Peruško, 2017; Peruško et al., 2015). The Netherlands and Austria had the highest percentages of hybrid readers. This finding was expected, as they are both present in the inclusive media landscape. Seniors in these countries may already possess the necessary skills for internet use and, therefore, can enjoy the best of both worlds. Similarly, the noticeable difference between these countries and Romania (representing a peripheral country) with regard to non-readers was also expected: While the former (especially Austria) had a marginal rate of respondents in this cluster, more than a third of the Romanian study participants reported no reading activities whatsoever the day before the survey. Nevertheless, the low percentages of heavy online readers in both the Netherlands and Romania, as well as the high rates of heavy print readers in Israel and Denmark, are difficult to explain. It is possible that these situations are influenced by a different distribution of the population’s demographic characteristics in those societies.
In conclusion, the majority of older readers in all participating countries are slowly becoming hybrid readers, who read print newspapers and books but often opt for their digital equivalents as well. For information and entertainment alike, they also enjoy watching television (Scales, 1996; Nimrod, 2017). As noted above, older readers are not a homogenous group, and their reading habits are affected by a complex configuration of various factors: technological features of different media, specific psychosocial needs of individuals, unequal allocation of cultural capital among varied social groups—resulting in different levels and types of literacy—and the idiosyncratic cultural and political conditions in each country.
Limitations, future research and recommendations
The approach applied in this study enabled response to key questions concerning reading habits among older internet users. Nevertheless, the study had several limitations, including lack of data concerning genres of content consumed, attitudes, benefits, and psychological wellbeing. Moreover, as the study was limited to the European context, one should not apply its findings to other Western and non-Western cultures.
Future research should examine reading habits of older internet users in additional cultural contexts, use more accurate measures of media use, relate to types of content, and explore associations between seniors’ reading habits and their attitudes, the benefits they gain from reading and their wellbeing. Such research will provide additional insights about the role of reading in the lives of older individuals and the influence of media displacement. Finally, as media displacement is a gradual process, there is a need for longitudinal studies that will follow trends in seniors’ reading habits over time.
Our study documented the emergence of a new type of readers among the older people: the hybrid readers, who are still avid print readers yet in a constant process of acquiring digital skills and expanding their use of digital media. Apparently, organizations in charge of production and distribution of books and other reading material, such as publishing firms, public libraries, and online and offline book shops, which are already undergoing a significant transformation (Cole, 2017; Lopez, Caspe, and Simpson, 2017; Peteman, 2017), must meet the challenge of new types of readers and in planning their future policies consider the cultural needs of older hybrid readers concerning both digital and print reading materials.
This work was supported by Ageing + Communication + Technologies (ACT), a research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and housed at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.
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European media landscapes in times of deep mediatization.
Austria, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Sweden
Highest political inclusiveness, highest social inclusiveness, highest globalization, highly developed digital media market, highest imports & exports in cultural industry sector and moderate TV concentration.
Most pronounced structural mediatization indicators, except TV audience fragmentation; internet and radio used in more places than in most other types (except Israel); most varied media use in common domestic places (with convergent media system).
Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Spain, United Kingdom
High social and high political inclusiveness, highest globalization, higher to moderately developed digital media market, low TV concentration, and developed and open cultural industry sector.
High to moderate structural mediatization indicators. Most active online audiences in public connection/civic participation.
Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, FYRM, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia Slovakia
Lower political and social inclusiveness, lower globalization, less developed digital media market and not significant cultural industry sector, higher TV concentration.
Less advanced structural mediatization indicators. More than average ubiquitous media use, online news use, points towards mediatization of practices (agency over structure).
Russian Federation, Turkey
Lowest political, social and economic development, lowest
The lowest scores on all mediatization indicators except audience
globalization, low internet but medium smartphone penetration, most fragmented TV audiences, lower position of public television, lowest import and export of culture.
fragmentation; only moderate smartphone diffusion might speak to practices of mediatization.
Lower political and higher social inclusiveness, lower globalization, moderately developed digital media market (but highest social media diffusion), less open creative economy, and highest TV concentration.
Less advanced structural mediatization indicators except social media penetration (linked to higher HDI). Most ubiquitous media users, points to mediatization of practice.
Source: Peruško 2017.
* In bold are countries included in this study.
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