By: Alan D. Mutter
News consumption in the digital era has become far more of a participatory activity than it was in the days when folks plopped into a La-Z-Boy to read the paper or watch the evening news.
Publishers hoping to connect with modern audiences need to understand the radically different expectations that consumers have about when, where and how they get the news – and how they proactively mix, match and remix the information they acquire.
The surprising degree to which consumers are using digital technology to personalize and control the news-consuming experience is illuminated in a recent study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.
Conducted online in the United States and eight other countries, the Oxford study shows an eclectic appetite for news sources and platforms around the world, as well as a sharp generational divide in what consumers do with the news after they obtain it. In particular, the findings show that digital natives under the age of 45 are more proactive than their elders.
While the online-only nature of the study may not give the print and broadcast media all the credit they are due, these trends are too significant for media executives to ignore. You can read the full study at http://tinyurl/oxjourn. Meantime, here are the key findings:
Digital trumps traditional
Online media far surpass newspapers as the primary source for news for both young and old consumers. While 52 percent of those over the age of 45 said television was the main source they used for keeping up with the news, 30 percent in the senior cohort cited the Internet as their top news venue and only 10 percent named newspapers. By contrast, 55 percent of those under 45 said the Internet was their primary news source, with 28 percent citing TV and 5 percent naming newspapers.
Digital users value choice
One in three digital news consumers said they used more than a single device to follow the news. While 71 percent of U.S. respondents used computers, 28 percent used smartphones, 16 percent used tablets, 4 percent used TVs connected to the Internet and 2 percent used eReaders. The more digital devices that consumers use, the more news they consume. While 68 percent of those who used only computers to access the news said they checked headlines several times a day, 88 percent of those who used a combination of computers, tablets and smartphones monitored the news throughout the day.
Digital natives take control
Digital natives under the age of 45 view the news as more of a participatory activity than their elders. In the United Kingdom, the survey found that 23 percent of those in the junior cohort actively engaged in aggregating and curating news, as compared with only 13 percent of those over the age of 45. At the other end of the scale, 46 percent of those in the over-45 group were passive consumers of the news, as compared with 15 percent of those in the junior group.
Digital natives talk back
Far from simply leaning back to read the news, digital natives react to what they see. When asked if they have shared a news item via email or the social media in the prior week, 25 percent of those under 45 said yes but only 13 percent of those in the older group had done so. There is even a difference in the means they preferred. While nearly a quarter of those under 45 say they would share an article over social media, only half as many would do so via email. Similar behavior applies to commenting on the news. While one in five of those under 45 would comment on an article on a social network, only half the number would do the same on a newspaper or broadcast website.
Digital natives prize peers
In a finding particularly troublesome for mainstream media, respondents under 45 said they put more trust in social networks and the power of the web than they do in traditional news brands. While 38 percent said they got their news from social networks, only 23 percent said they relied on established brands. Thus, it appears that peers get more respect than brands.
Gender adds a new dimension
News consumption, like so many other things, varies by gender. Men are far more interested in sports, business and science than women, while females are more interested in local news, celebrity news and health news. Men get more actively involved in culling, commenting and creating news than women. The UK study found that 61 percent of the most active news consumers and commenters were men. Further, the study found that men are more likely to share news online, while women tend to do so in person.
Taken together, the above findings show that the news audience is less monolithic and more demanding than most editors and publishers ever imagined. Now, they need to imagine new ways to connect with those increasingly connected consumers.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor and Silicon Valley CEO who works today as a strategic consultant to media and technology companies. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (www.newsosaur.blogspot.com).