August 20, 2008

The How vs. Where of News Consumption

The most compelling transformation in media consumption is not really where people are getting news but how.

That is the key message, if one looks closely, in the findings of the newest biennial media consumption survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The data reveal the contours of an emerging “On Demand Culture” for news and information—a culture made possible by the digital revolution.

This new culture, however, appears to differ from what some technology pioneers imagined. Citizens are not, generally, becoming their own journalists, replacing news professionals. The numbers for that are strikingly limited.

Instead, already in large numbers, people are becoming their own editors, checking for news throughout the day, hunting through links and aggregators to find what they want, sorting among many sources, while also looking for overviews of what’s new today—and sharing what they find with friends.

In short, news consumption is shifting from being a passive act—tell me a story—to a proactive one—answer my question.

The On Demand Culture is also defined by what has not changed. People continue to want news from neutral non-partisan sources—by a margin of 66% to 23%. And the numbers on this remain rock-solid, even among consumers of partisan talk shows.

Nor are people turning away from the news more generally. Seven in ten Americans (71%) still start their day by getting news—a number roughly unchanged in the decade Pew has been asking. And eight in ten get still news at some point in the day.

Some people may hone in on other numbers in the new Pew Research Center survey. The figures for almost every traditional media platform are now at historic lows. For instance, the number of Americans who said they read a newspaper “yesterday” has fallen by 40% since the 1990s—to 34%. The number of people who watched the nightly network newscasts yesterday has fallen even further—by half—to 29%. Radio news is at 35%. Regular readership of weekly news magazines is down to 12%.

But those statistics continue long-standing and familiar trends. There are many more platforms and outlets for news—so, naturally, each one tends to have a smaller piece of the pie.

Focusing on those numbers alone misses the fact that the newer outlets consumers are going to are most often digital versions of the old brands, or aggregators whose content comes from traditional sources. Whether one looks at the Pew Research Center survey data or the various online ratings services, older news organizations dominate in the new technology.

The significance of this platform shifting is economic, not a reflection of lost brand loyalty. The Internet is not generating the kind of advertising revenue the old platforms did and increasingly appears as if it never will. The shift to online thus erodes revenue, but not because the audience is abandoning the values and practices of those traditional news operations.

What’s changing is how people interact with the news when they acquire it—and the old news deliverers certainly must adapt to these new expectations.

A majority of Americans (51%) are now what Pew Research calls “news grazers,” people who check in on the news from time to time rather than going at regular times. And those numbers are likely to grow. Nearly eight in ten (78%) of those under age 25 fit this description.

This grazing suggests part of the new relationship. This news acquisition is initiated, more than before, by the curiosity of the user, even if it also encompasses learning about things by accident as well.

To get a deeper sense of this more proactive consumption, consider a list of other user-initiated activities that register sizable numbers. More than half of Americans (53%) say they use search engines to hunt for news on particular subjects at least once a week. When people are getting news online, more often than not (50% vs. 41%) they follow links and arrive at a news site rather than going directly to the home page of a favorite news organization. Nearly half (47%) have emailed a news story to a friend (up nearly 20% from 2006). Nearly a quarter of Americans (22%) now have customized web pages that include news and this includes 12% of the least involved news consumers, the so-called “disengaged.” Fully 15% of Americans now receive email alerts for news.

Hunting for news using search engines, customizing your news front page, emailing friends with news, and setting up news email alerts—this is the consumer editing his and her own version of the news rather than passively accepting the news as it is delivered to them.

Almost a quarter of Americans (23%) also read blogs about politics and current events at least occasionally. One in five (20%) reads user comments on the news and also look at what stories have been most emailed by other users (18%). These activities all involve consumers wanting to know what their peers—other citizens—are interested in. All of these are part of the new, more active, form of citizen conversation of interacting with the news after consuming it.

Even forms of media that have been largely passive in nature—television and radio, are becoming more active. With television and radio, unlike the newspaper, consumers are accustomed to sitting down and letting it come to them rather than flipping through the papers and picking and choosing what to read. Now, this picking and choosing is happening with video and audio in sizable numbers. A third of Americans (33%) now watch video news clips online at least sometimes, while nearly a quarter (24%) listen to online audio of news.

Yet it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion here that citizens are replacing journalists and taking over the news for themselves. What we are seeing, at least so far, amounts instead to something more nuanced. Citizens are taking over how they consume the news—but not moving on in significant numbers to gathering and reporting it on their own.

Consider that only 4% of Americans have ever posted their own news content, including videos or photos. Only 7% post comments about news stories, even on occasion.

Even among those most engaged with the new technology, the numbers are not large. Only one-in-five of the most technologically oriented users, that 13% that the Pew Research Center calls the “Net Newsers,” post a comment on news stories even just occasionally. And only one-in-twelve have ever posted a photo or video.

One fear people had about new technology also has not appeared to have materialized. The user-driven nature of the web raised the prospect that people would no longer learn about a broad range of events that they would focus only on a few subjects they were particularly interested in.

That hasn’t happened. Fully 62% say it’s more important to them to get an overview of the day rather than getting news on their favorite subjects. And they still like discovering things by accident. Nearly three quarters of Internet users (73%) say they “come across” news online when they didn’t intend to, meaning something will catch their eye and they will click on it.

These subtle contours of the “On Demand Culture” make sense. People want to customize their news to a point, but they still want to know more generally, what’s new and what’s happening. They want answers to their questions, but they also want to know what is interesting that they couldn’t anticipate. And, for now, while they like sharing with friends and discussing the news, they still want sentinels to gather it for them, professionals whose practices and norms are known, for they have neither the time nor the desire to become their own news gatherers.

In short, the newest data on news consumption suggest that technology is serving our curiosity about the world, but not changing it.