Digital Natives vs. Newspapers

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By: Alan D. Mutter

The French, as Steve Martin once observed, have a different word for everything. But a recent groundbreaking study of modern media consumers by BVA, a French market research firm, resonates perfectly in any language.

The research is important to anyone worried about the future of the newspaper business, because it demonstrates how profoundly next-generation consumers differ from the aging geezers (this writer included) who account for more than half of newspaper readership in the United States even though they represent barely 30% of the population.

The French study found that young people have utterly different attitudes than their elders about such seminal concepts as, say, institutional authority. Further, those attitudes are diametrically opposed to the values, expectations and economic underpinnings that suffuse the newspaper business. 

The almost complete generational disconnect means that editors and publishers have lots to learn — tout de suite — if they hope to preserve the long-term sustainability and value of their franchises. But it won’t be easy, because learning to think, speak and act in this new and alien paradigm is even harder than learning French.

In an intensive, three-month study of the media and social habits of 100 consumers between the ages of 18 and 24, BVA found that this generation — which it dubbed “Digital Natives” — doesn’t trust authority, doesn’t want anyone telling them what to think and doesn’t like to pay full retail prices.

The study was reported over the summer by my friend Frédéric Filloux, a media strategist and consultant in Paris who graciously allowed me to quote from the English abstract he posted at his blog, MondayNote.Com. You can contact BVA directly here.

The key findings of the research — and the implications for the newspaper business — are:

Eroded Trust
Finding: Digital Natives don’t trust politicians, social institutions, the media or corporations. Rather, they rely largely on themselves and their peers to decide what to think, what to do and what to buy. 
Implications: This pretty much rejects everything newspapers stand for, inasmuch as editors and publishers traditionally have operated on the theory that readers regard them as authorities reporting authoritatively on the activities of other authorities — and that advertisers will pay big bucks to leverage the authority of the newspaper for their brands. 

Primal Screens
Finding:  A generation raised on television screens, computer screens, game screens and phone screens — often all at the same time — can’t get enough information fast enough, leading to frenzied multitasking and attenuated attention spans. The busier Digital Natives get, the less they concentrate, the less they think and the less they absorb.
Implications: Newspapers are the antithesis of the empty info-calories typically consumed by Digital Natives.

Gamesmanship
Finding: Digital Natives view life as a game of outsmarting authority to beat a system they disdain. Whether catching up on the news or shopping for a car, Digital Natives enjoy the challenge of acquiring and manipulating information as much as the outcome to which it leads.
Implication: This suggests the most satisfying way a Digital Native can interact with a newspaper is to argue with it. While that might be fun for the Digital Native, it plays hell with the credibility of the press.

Never Pay Retail
Finding: “The Digital Native enjoys using all tools available in his arsenal to outsmart the merchant system and to find the best deal,” research director Edouard Le Marechal told Filloux. “He doesn’t trust the brand. Like in a game, the brand is the enemy to defeat.”
Implication: Taken to its logical conclusion, this finding suggests the coming obsolescence of advertising as we know it.

The Dilemma
The sobering findings of this study represent both a dilemma and a challenge to newspapers.

If newspapers tried to change themselves sufficiently to appeal to the Digital Natives, they would be forced to seriously compromise, if not abandon, their core strengths and values. The resulting products in all likelihood would turn off a large number of their most faithful readers.

If newspaper publishers don’t develop products and services to appeal to young consumers, however, they run the risk of wasting into irrelevant and unprofitable anachronisms that eventually are forced to close their doors. 
At a time the U.S. newspaper industry ought to be desperately seeking fresh insights into the markets they have and the consumers they hope to serve, it is troubling to have to look overseas for the kind of research that should be under way here.

Publishers need to invest in learning everything they can about the Digital Natives on this side of the Atlantic so they can start developing solutions to secure the health of their franchises. When do we start?

Alan D. Mutter is a newspaper editor-turned Silicon Valley CEO-turned newspaper consultant. He writes Reflections of a Newsosaur at newsosaur.blogspot.com. He is at alan.mutter@broadbandxxi.com.

 
 
 

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