Where News Consumption Is Heading

By: Steve Outing

A couple years ago, a Carnegie Corporation study reported that the average age of newspaper (print edition) readers was 55. I’m not aware of more recent estimates, but they’re not likely to have gotten any lower. Nor will they in the future.

The printed newspaper now seems akin to TV network broadcast news (at least here in the U.S.), where you can tell the advanced age of its average viewers because most of the commercials are for pharmaceuticals and other products aimed at an over-50 demographic.

That’s not good news for either medium.

I’m not surprised that newspaper readers have skewed older over time, though I am a bit surprised that it’s moved as fast as it has.

Living with a teenage daughter and seeing her friends, I really shouldn’t be shocked. They — and their elders who are in their 20s — are entirely addicted to, committed to and comfortable with digital technology. Prying my teen’s cell phone from her hands as punishment for some transgression is a wrenching experience — for her. It’s as though I’m cutting off her lifeline to her world.

If there are any folks in the newspaper industry who have notions still that they’ll adapt the print product to attract some of my daughter’s generation, or those in their 20s, and probably 30s, too, I’d say your chances for success are practically nil. As a long-time newspaper guy, I think the chances of my two daughters reading a print edition as they grow older are close to zero.

Where will they get their news?

So, the question, of course, is how the newspaper industry can remain relevant to the younger generation. It’s useful, then, to look ahead a few years and try to understand how my daughter and the rest of the young generation will get their news. I’m not so pessimistic as to believe that their generation will eschew news. I simply recognize that to them the printed newspaper is about as useful and convenient as a rotary-dial phone is in the era of the smart cell phone.

For this column, I quizzed an assortment of people who I think have a good handle on where media and news consumption are heading. I hope that folks running newspaper companies right now will listen to them, because they’re telling you what sorts of things you should be investing in in order to survive as viable media companies.

Young and old views

Let’s start with Jack Driscoll, who is retired editor of the Boston Globe and editor-in-residence at the MIT Media Lab (and “struggling reporter/editor/photographer” for a local citizen-journalism website called Rye Reflections). He’s no in-denial, old-school newspaper editor; Driscoll sees the future pretty clearly.

“The vehicles for receiving news in the next 5-10 years pretty much exist today,” he says. “They’ll be refined; you’ll be able to read the news on your kitchen wall as you sip coffee if you want, or you’ll be able to ask orally for the latest news on a particular subject on your car radio and get it.”

OK, that’s the over-60 view. Now let’s turn to someone much younger: Robin Sloan, currently the manager of new media strategy for Al Gore’s Current TV, a San Francisco-based cable network and website that celebrates and publishes amateur (and not-so-amateur) video, who’s in his 20s. Sloan also is well known for a wildly popular video peek into the future that he and Matt Thompson put together when both worked at the Poynter Institute, called EPIC 2014 (which predicted the demise of traditional news media).

I really like Sloan’s answer to my question about how news will be consumed in 5-10 years:

“I think ‘news’ just becomes a less distinct category. You don’t sit down with a newspaper, or even a news website, or even a super wireless e-paper device, for 10 minutes in the morning to very formally ‘get your news.’ Rather, you get all sorts of news and information — from the personal to the professional to the political — throughout the day, in little bits and bursts, via many different media. With any luck, in 5-10 years the word ‘news’ will be sort of confusing: Don’t you just mean ‘life’?”

Yes! Very astute, Mr. Sloan. … Because within 5-10 years we’ll all pretty much be carrying around with us the means to receive important and personally relevant news at any time and in any place — I’m thinking of how the cell phone will evolve to become your information lifeline — or otherwise be sitting in front of some connected screen, so the devoted “watch/read the news” experience goes away. It (news and information that’s relevant to me) is just always there.

Sloan elaborates: “A key point is that news will continue to be delivered on many media — websites, blogs, TV, phones, pamphlet-y things, those little java jackets they have at coffee shops, whatever. It’s not about everything going digital and never seeing a molecule of real matter again. But it IS about the death of the monolithic news experience.”

The pre-eminence of the new video

Another key factor that argues against print newspapers having much of a chance at all is the prominence of on-demand video in the Youtube era (today) and beyond. Andrew Nachison, another stellar thinker when it comes to media trends and co-founder of iFOCOS, a new media think tank and conference host, says, “First of all, video formats will remain dominant. That’s been a bitter pill for local newspapers to swallow for a long time — but that’s just the way it is.”

In Nachison’s view of the next 5-10 years, traditional TV as well as newspapers are crumbling badly. “It’s being replaced by video everywhere, and screens everywhere,” he says. “Phones, public displays, screens in buses, subways and cars, laptop screens in the office and coffee shop, and yes, big TVs that we sit and watch passively in our homes.

“Newspapers will continue to slide in influence, but text will remain important, and a lot of it will still be printed on paper — and read in the bathroom and along side other media. News will be delivered in a multitude of formats. The key idea is that there really won’t be a dominant or shared news experience. News and information will flow around us like air — and friends and family will continue to be important sources and perhaps even more important filters as the volume of information grows but our time to process and understand it remains the same.”

That (“there really won’t be a dominant or shared news experience”) is the bitterest pill for newspaper executives to swallow. But it’s the reality they’re faced with, so they might as well figure out how to fit into the new news picture.

Problems? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet

I also asked my “what’s it going to look like in 5-10 years?” question to Brad Feld, a well known and successful venture capitalist who spends a lot of his brainpower and dollars in the digital media world. (Disclosure: Feld is an investor in my company.) This is a guy who gets to see just about everything digital coming down the pike a year or two before it’s unleashed on the public. His vision — which mirrors my own expectations — is profoundly disturbing to newspapers.

“Ten years from now,” he says, “virtually all news in the US will be online — physical newspapers and magazines will feel like an archaic relic of the past. We are now within five years of a tectonic shift to frictionless and ubiquitous online media. The pervasiveness of broadband and mobile infrastructure and the merging of distribution platforms to endpoint devices — along with radically improved and increasingly inexpensive video displays — are at the core of this. In addition, an entirely new generation of Americans who are now less than 20 years old will have had computers as their primary information medium for their entire lives.

“It’s going to get really interesting. The sea change that newspaper companies have been dealing with over the past few years will continue to accelerate at a pace that will surprise even the most forward thinking. It’ll cut across all media — not just newspapers — but the rapid change and blending of all media online is now happening fast and furiously. (As I type this the guy sitting next to me on the plane is watching ’24’ on his Apple laptop.)”

Feld’s vision predicts challenging times for newspapers. Other observers who I respect have likewise predicted that 2007 will be a rough year for the industry — e.g., Dave Morgan’s prediction that at least one major metropolitan US newspaper will shut down this year.

Some prescriptions for survival

OK, so enough pessimism. (Well, it’s pessimism in terms of the newspaper industry. From a consumer perspective, it’s actually a great time to be a news consumer — that is, as long as news companies figure out how to continue to pay journalists and fund important watchdog journalism.) Let’s get to the part where my interviewees explain how newspapers can reorganize and rebuild their businesses to get out of this mess. In their own words:

Andrew Nachison. Newspaper companies must finally, really get over thinking of themselves as newspaper companies, he says. “They may still print papers, but they may not and whether they do or not will make no difference to how they think of themselves. The most successful will re-imagine their roles and will think in terms of connecting and empowering communities, not in terms of controlling and dominating markets. Those that hang on to outdated notions of authority will go down the tubes, as they should. Those that learn to open themselves up to the expertise, wisdom and needs of their communities will thrive.”

Sree Sreenivasan, journalism professor, Columbia University. “Newspapers must remain engaged in doing what they do best: cover their communities, provide context and analysis and tell readers why the latest development in [fill in the blank] matter.”

Robin Sloan. “1. Aggressively expand your view of what counts as news, both in terms of subject and source. 2. Get that expanded news out there, everywhere, via every channel you can imagine, digital and non-digital alike. A news organization should be like a big crazy octopus of information, with tentacles reaching everywhere.”

Dan Gillmor, founder of Center for Citizen Media. “Offer and aggregate hyper-local and niche news, being guides to the best of what’s going on outside their walls, and stop pretending to be oracles.” … In a fit of sarcasm, Gillmor’s first answer to my question about what newspapers should get involved in was this: “Prayer.”

Jack Driscoll. “Newspapers have a window for re-inventing themselves in the near
future, if they:

— Recognize they are a valuable source for news and analysis whether in print or in other vehicles.

— Stop laying off reporters (not to mention other news personnel) who are more vital to a more-engaged, more-intelligent audience.

–Restore deadlines. The more automated the worse the deadlines? That makes no sense. Surely readers should be able to know how their local team made out by 6 a.m.

–Don’t put all your eggs in the online basket but figure out how to parlay the strengths of both vehicles.

— Do research, of what readers want and need, and of what new technology can do.

— Use creative approaches to tapping into the talents of readers of all ages in meaningful ways.

— Stop grousing and start concentrating on being indispensable.”

Craig Newmark, founder, Craigslist. “Start viewing themselves more as a community service and forget about 20-percent profit margins. And start speaking truth to power.”

The newspaper industry has some challenging times ahead, that’s for sure.

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