By: Alan D. Mutter
Several years ago, The Washington Post convened a series of focus groups to learn why most people younger than 45 did not subscribe to the newspaper — a problem persisting to this day throughout the overwhelmingly print-centric industry.
It’s not that people didn’t like the Post, reported the American Journalism Review in a 2005 article describing the research project. The problem was that the respondents — many of whom happily consumed news on digital devices — drew the line at piles of old newspapers cluttering up their lives. According to a Post executive quoted by the AJR, more than one respondent declared: “I don’t want that hulking thing in my house.”
Although the 50 percent-plus drop in advertising sales since 2005 has involuntarily slimmed down the Post and most other newspapers, the print product remains broadly unappealing to people younger than 45.
If publishers intend to make good on their long-stated pledge to pivot from print to digital products, it is important for them to understand the profound difference between the consumers they have and the consumers they wish they had. That’s what we’ll do in a moment. First, a few facts:
• Print newspaper readership ranged from 16 percent of 40-somethings to only 6 percent of those in their 20s, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center. In contrast, Pew found that 30 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 and 48 percent of those older than 65 had read a newspaper the previous day.
• The repudiation of the print delivery system by young people is probably the single greatest factor in the sharp decline Pew detected in newspaper readership in the last decade. Pew found that only 29 percent of the American population read a newspaper in 2012, compared with 56 percent in 1991 — the first time researchers asked the question.
• When I compared newspaper readership against the age distribution of the general U.S. population, I found that approximately three-quarters of the audience at the typical newspaper is 45 years of age or older, even though individuals in this cohort represent only 40 percent of the entire population. Attesting to the rapid shift in news consumption patterns, only half of newspaper readers were older than 45 when I ran the same numbers in 2010.
• The mature skew of the newspaper audience is a clear and present danger to publishers, because the sale of print advertising and subscriptions generates 80 to 90 percent of the revenue at a typical newspaper. The industry’s dependence on print is a particular problem, because geezers are not only undesirable to many advertisers but also can’t be expected to live forever.
In light of the above, any serious effort on the part of publishers to migrate to digital publishing requires an understanding of digital natives, the Generation Xers and Millenials who grew up in front of all kinds of screens: televisions, computers, Xboxes, iPods, Razrs, and, today, Androids and tablets.
Unfortunately, the digital strategy undertaken to date by most publishers is to port their newspaper-style content to the Web and then repurpose the material for mobile devices. The warmed-over digital fare offered by the typical newspaper falls well short of the expectations of two whole generations of consumers who are not only empowered by technology but also damn well sure of how to get what they want.
Further, the defining characteristic of these digital generations is that they will make their own media any time they don’t like what they are getting. This explains the explosive growth of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and a host of other user-generated media.
As the Washington Post discovered years ago in its research, one of the main reasons digital natives don’t read newspapers is that they travel light: favoring renting over owning, flexibility over commitment, and convenience over cost.
The distinct mindset of the digital native was captured in a recent presentation by Mary Meeker, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of the top venture-capital firms in Silicon Valley.
Dubbing digital natives the “asset-light” generations, Meeker notes that young people don’t want to own CDs, haul around books, buy cars, carry cash, do their own chores, or be committed to a full-time job. Instead, they use their smartphones to buy, borrow, or steal media; rent shared cars at home and book shared rooms when they travel; hire people to buy groceries or cut the grass; and use apps from Starbucks and Target to pay for lattes and redeem coupons. Many of the digital natives even prefer short-term gigs that allow them to arrange their work around their life, rather than arrange their life around their work.
Meeker believes the digital generations will change everything from the travel and credit card industries to the way health care and education are consumed.
The newspaper industry already has been profoundly disrupted. The only remaining question is what publishers will do about it.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor who became a Silicon Valley CEO and today serves as a technology consultant to media companies. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com).