Monday, October 7, 2013

Pew Data on News Consumption: Millennials Lead the Shift to Web Use

For advertisers wanting to sell products for aging "baby boomers" and "silent generation" senior citizens, there's good news: your news television audiences don't seem to be disappearing. For everyone else, there's mixed news: younger people read and view news less in general, but they're getting it from all sorts of sources on the Web, with social media consumption leading the way. So goes the story painted by recent survey data from +Pew Research Center that tracks news consumption habits. Many of the trends are not surprising, but they do show that Internet usage for news consumption has spiked amongst younger Millennials about 59% higher since the last Pew news survey in 2010.

Millennials pushing Web usage of news is significant from a couple of angles. First, the Pew data shows that in general, as people age, they tend to spend more time in consuming news generally. So, to some degree, the age range with this label has aged somewhat, but has only budged up its time spent on news consumption marginally so far.

Media industry analyst +Jeff Jarvis speculates in a recent blog post that perhaps the Web has enabled these Millennials to become more efficient news consumers, and he may have a point - you don't have to stream through endless commercials on the Web to get to the story or the video clip that's news to you. In other words, Web tools make finding the news that's of interest to you much more easier.

Thinking of the personally tailored curation tools built into a platform like +Flipboard or the automatically tailored streams in social media services like +Google+, this certainly seems to make sense generally. It also take a lot less time to scan headlines in online services of all kinds, from Twitter to Reddit to whatever streaming information service appeals to you. Yet the data also shows that for now newspaper consumption has ticked up slightly for Millenials since the 2010 survey. Again, this age bracket is somewhat older, now, and has to "speak the same language" as older bosses still tracking newspapers closely. At the same time, this bottoming out of newspaper downturn for Millennials may also indicate that as Millennials age, they're appreciating quality news sources more as they begin to need to sound more informed in professional and social settings.

The stats for television news are especially grim for Millennials, with only about a third tuning in now, representing the only medium to lose overall ground with them. By contrast, television news consumption remains a stalwart for Boomers and Silents, with a slight dip amongst the older Silents viewers but Boomers tracking strong - even as their Internet consumption of news surges and newspaper and radio consumption goes down. This seems to indicate that people in their prime earning years are well tuned in to news via mobile Web-connected devices such as smart phones and tablets as part of their routines, and still logging some TV time when they get home as part of a leanback routine. Trying in boomers on mobile devices to TV news channels would seem to be a priority - and yet TV news channels on cable and satellite are very slow to move out of those bundled services into direct streaming video delivery.

While Twitter is all the rage amongst TV new outlets wanting to amplify their stories and to draw reactions to them, the Pew data seems to show that Twitter's total influence over news consumption is marginal at best. About 3 percent of surveyed people cited getting news from Twitter in the past day, while 19 percent cited portals such as Google+ and Facebook, where there is more than just 140 characters to explain a story - as well as embeddable video and graphics. Twitter also earmarked only a one percent growth in its use for news since 2010, compared to a ten percent rise for other social networking sites. It also seems that those who tweet tend to be most interested in the news - 59 percent of polled Twitter users tweet or retweet news stories. So for reaching news hounds Twitter is a useful channel, but for average folks, perhaps not so much.

Finally an oddity from the Pew poll data on major U.S. cable news channels. MSNBC was the only news outlet in the survey not to show a decline, but the most drastic decline in the survey continues to be in viewership of CNN news. CNN plummeted after the 2008 elections, it wold appear, and continues a steady decline, while Fox News ticked down a bit. These are hard tea leaves to read, overall, but in general I'd have to assume that a younger generation of viewers that is less polarized in their politics generally is tuning out the more polarized messages from MSNBC and Fox and rejecting the CNN message altogether, perhaps opting for alternative news comedy shows like The Daily Show that helps us to laugh at both points of view from various angles, but largely turning away from opinionated news outlets in general and using the Web to draw their own conclusions more independently.

But the larger question that is not answered by the Pew survey is what people today consider to be "news" in general. When these polls started many years ago, thwere was a pretty clear roadmap for what constituted news outlets and news consumption. Today, with the Web, social media, mobile devices and an array of streaming services that can allow the Web to take over our television screens, what constitutes news and a particular style of news consumption is up for grabs more than ever. Authority in news story-telling is shifting strongly towards social media outlets, not replacing traditional journalism but providing a stream of raw facts and experiences that makes the role of journalism more one of curation and analysis than news-breaking. These were trends emerging several years ago, even as I was writing +Content Nation, but more pronounced than ever. A recent exchange of messages on Twitter between U.S. president Barack Obama and recently elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani shows that major news figures are more in control of breaking their own news than ever before.

At the same time the shifting of news organizations into roles focused increasingly on curation, analysis and editorial opinions is creating an opening for news aggregation services that are more focused on picking the best sources of news overall. Be it a Flipboard, a Google News, a Pulse or a wide variety of other services, the ability of traditional news media organizations to act as the final arbiter of people's "front page" has largely disappeared in the online world. In the short term this seems to have pushed many news organizations into more sensational approaches to news headlines and topics to warrant scarce audience attention, but in the long run people learn about what's noise and what's signal, so these services will tend to resolve towards quality coverage over time. However, with more people able to produce news than ever before, there's no guarantee that the long-term push to quality via Web news curation tools will benefit traditional news outlets.

So this year's Pew data uncovers few new tidbits, but does underscore trends that news organizations need to embrace. The propping up of television news via the support of older viewers is tending to buffer some news organizations from the need to change their ways, but only because they long ago conceded that they were more entertainment and opinion outlets than serious news outlets. News marches on, and it marches to the beat of an online drummer, and the beat tells us that fewer people than ever will be fooled by bad news coverage over time.
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