Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=128629
Story Retrieval Date: 5/24/2013 5:34:01 PM CST
WASHINGTON—One thing missing from this week’s Senate hearing on the future of news? Future news consumers.
Although preteens, teens and 20-somethings represent more than 41 percent of the U.S. population and will serve as tomorrow’s media executives and consumers, this key audience was left out of the hearing Wednesday on how to save an ailing newspaper industry.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, called the hearing, which focused on the role the press plays in a democracy and how to ensure that citizens get the news they need.
“For the first time in the history of the Republic, it’s easier for a high school student to learn about the crisis in Darfur online than corruption in local government in many local papers,” said Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibarguen, who testified at the hearing.
Kerry called the hearing to address the downward spiral of print newspapers in the shadow of increasingly popular online news models and a severe economic recession.
“Newspapers have been a part of our daily lives since we were old enough to read,” Kerry noted. “We learned about our neighborhood, our country, our world from newspapers—they entertained us; they enraged us; but always, they have informed us. But today newspapers look like endangered species.”
Millennials want news, but not newspapers
Today’s Internet-savvy young adults are more disengaged from news compared with other generations, found a study of media consumption habits among nearly 100 teenagers published in April by Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and the Newspaper Association of America Foundation.
Don Tapscott, author of “Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation,” believes today’s youth are stereotyped as being uninformed and having short attention spans. According to his research, though, Millenials are more informed and better at accessing information than other generations.
Calling them “a generation of scrutinizers and authenticators,” Tapscott noted that youth are volunteering more and graduating from college in record numbers. This, he said, requires deep concentration and hard work—and wouldn’t happen with a generation of short attention spans.
“Young people are getting news, just not through newspapers,” Tapscott explained.
Ryan Sholin, director of news innovation at Publish2, a link sharing service for journalists, said that “the way millenials have taken content creation into their own hands” is a positive consequence of a shift in communication media.
News has to look good and be easily accessible
The Media Management Center and the Newspaper Association of America Foundation researchers found that teens often find online news overwhelming, but will stop on a story if it catches their eye.
“What we found is that teenagers wanted less when they went on a homepage, but they wanted more on the story pages,” said Vivian Vahlberg, the study’s co-author and managing director at the Media Management Center. “Once they got interested in a story, they were willing to read more and more and more, but it had to be presented in a way that they could absorb it.”
Google Vice President of Search Products and User Experience Marissa Mayer made a similar point at Wednesday’s Senate hearing. “To make an article effective in a standalone setting requires providing sufficient context for first-time readers, while clearly calling out the latest information for those following a story over time,” she said.
Mayer testified in support of search engines as a conduit for journalism—as a link between individuals and news stories they are seeking. Vahlberg and her colleagues found that teens often rely on news aggregators, portals and search engines like Google, Yahoo or AOL to find information.
A shift toward an “atomic unit of consumption”—where evolving news stories exist under a single URL “as a living, changing, updating entity”—would add authority to news stories and keep readers engaged, Mayer said, citing Wikipedia and The New York Times’ topic pages as examples.
“A much smaller but important factor for online newspapers to consider in today’s digital age is the fundamental design and presentation of their content,” Mayer said.
But Vahlberg clarified that visual stimulation doesn’t mean dumbing down the news for young people. “It’s much more in the presentation of it,” she said. “Many news sites are more designed for news junkies than they are for the beginner. One of the beauties of online is that you can create separate publications for target audiences.”
“My concern is that there has to be a financial underpinning that supports what I would call the ‘reportorial engine’ of a news organization,” Vahlberg said.
For now, flexibility may be the best business model
“This new kind of press, this new media is going to require a new economic model, one that everyone is still trying to figure out,” said Kerry, summarizing the goal of Wednesday’s hearing.
An overhaul may not be necessary, but an ability to adapt will be critical to the future of news.
In last six months, daily newspapers in Boston, San Francisco, Houston, Miami and Atlanta saw double-digit percentage decreases in circulation. The Rocky Mountain News was shut down, while the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Christian Science Monitor shifted to all-online operations. After a week of negotiations, the Boston Globe reached a deal with parent New York Times Co. Wednesday to cut wages and benefits in order to save the paper, which is expected to lose $85 million this year.
“If nothing else, the best way traditional news organizations can prepare for the consumption habits of tomorrow is by being more agile, especially when it comes to adapting to different mediums,” Publish2’s Sholin said. “The fundamentals of reporting are going to be around indefinitely; the delivery method and systems may change.”
Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, also noted Wednesday that consumer habits have changed dramatically. “People have gotten used to getting the news they want, when they want it, how they want it, and where they want it. And that is here to stay,” she said.
One new way to get news is through Amazon’s bigger, better Kindle electronic reader, which the company said Wednesday would be available this summer. However, the Kindle DX’s $489 price tag could be a deterrent to its target audience--newspaper readers and college students.
According to Vahlberg and colleagues, teens are not very likely to pay for news. They don’t mind ads, though, as long as they are displayed in prominent places and do not interfere with the flow of news.
“The more we can tailor what people need and want and products for it, the more you’re going to create demand for news,” she said.