Millions of people in developed nations like the UK have never used the internet and many of them never will. Whether through issues related to culture, age, lack of access or education, going online isn’t a daily habit for a significant portion of today’s society. So it’s dangerous to assume that the migration away from analogue to digital platforms will be a simple task of persuading readers and viewers to use new technology. It’s going to be a lot harder than that.

The Office for National Statistics released data this week showing that only 77 percent of British households even have access to the internet (up from 73 percent last year). Combine that technical barrier with a mixture of social, educational and economic factors and 8.73 million UK adults have never been online (according to the separate ONS Labour Force survey). Half of the people who don’t have internet access say this is because they don’t feel they “don’t need” it. To underline the point, if you are a mass market publisher, this is your audience that isn’t accessing your content online.

The technical barriers to reversing the internet access problem are legion. Lord Carter’s Digital Britain review promised that all UK households would get (potential access to, not a guarantee of) a connection of 2Mbps or higher. Now culture secretary Jeremy Hunt is committed to providing 24Mbps in 90 percent of homes (Guardian has more on that). But deadlines are vague and while big cities and towns are due to get good service as standard, rural and remote areas currently are not – only a collaboration between networks, government, local authorities and some very creative thinking will succeed. None of these plans address the problems that some households cannot afford broadband.

News isn’t the top of people’s to-do list

Moreover, news and journalism consumption is one of only a few things people do do online. Here’s a chart breaking down the ten things respondents to ONS’s survey had done in the last three months (it’s not exhaustive – some did all ten)

Did you see downloading and reading newspapers and magazines in there at number five? So only slightly more than half of the people who regularly use the internet read online news publications of some description in the last three months.

To put this in context, 57 percent of internet users and 91 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds used social networking sites in the same period. The people who are soon going to be your ad manager’s target audience already spend more time talking to friends and sharing photographs then perhaps they ever will reading newspapers or magazines online.

Mobile hope

The bright glint of hope in the cloud is how fast consumers are taking to mobile devices for news reading – mostly phones, but increasingly tablets. Some 45 percent of respondents to ONS’s survey who do access the internet did so via mobile in 2011. And again looking to the future, 71 percent of 16-24-year-olds had done so this year, a big increase on 2010 when only 44 had done so.

This means we are slowly moving towards what Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger optimistically called the “iPod moment for newspapers, when the digital delivery of content to devices becomes second nature.

But we are not there yet. Only three of the UK’s 86 regional newspapers increased circulation in the first half of 2011 (incidentally two risers were Archant’s East Anglian titles, illustrating how good, simple management in the shape of a revitalised audience growth team can still boost print media businesses). Just one national newspaper – the promo-heavy Mail on Sunday – increased its circulation in the year to June 2011.

Media businesses need to invest and staff at every level need to understand how monetisation and consumption is changing. But the transition to digital can only go as fast as the audience’s habits. The evidence suggests that many readers will never make the leap to online.