Posted on May 11, 2009
Knowing your audience (do you?)
As we know, newspaper readership and TV news viewing are declining across the board (although not in every market). But the public’s consumption of news and information (let’s not forget, journalists have always provided a fair bit of information that is not necessarily “news”) is growing.
“Since the early 1990s, the proportion of Americans saying they read a newspaper on a typical day has declined by about 40%; the proportion that regularly watches nightly network news has fallen by half” (source: Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources).
The report was published in August 2008, and the data were collected in mid-2008 from 3,612 U.S. adults (both landline phones and cell phones). I’d like to think about the four segments the researchers identified “in today’s news audience”:
- Integrators (23 percent of the public): They “identify a traditional medium as their main news source, but also go online for news several days a week.”
- Net-Newsers (13 percent): They “point to the web as their main source and use it frequently for news.”
- Traditionalists (46 percent): “The oldest (median age: 52) and largest news segment,” they “use traditional media sources (TV, newspapers, radio) almost exclusively.”
- Disengaged (14 percent): They “stand out for their low levels of interest in the news and news consumption.”
We need to look at the Integrators and the Net-Newsers, because the Traditionalists are declining in numbers, and eventually, they will all be gone. The proportion of Disengaged might therefore increase — something we should seek to counteract.
I think some questions we need to pursue are:
- Among the Integrators, when and why do they choose to use a traditional source instead of an online source? Are there behavioral factors, such as a convenient time and place when they pick up a printed newspaper or magazine? Are those factors likely to change? (For example, as they acquire smart phones?)
- Among the Net-Newsers, what do they call “news”? How much time do they spend online each day, and how much of that time is spent gathering and sorting “information”? How much of that information is something they call “news”? How much of what they consider “not news” is in fact something we can see in traditional news sources?
What I’m thinking about, in part, is the way survey questions leave a lot to chance, because the respondents can decide (without saying so out loud) that the sports they follow on ESPN.com are not “news,” or the weather they check every morning on Weather Underground is not “news.” And yet a person who reports watching the local TV news every night might be doing so primarily to see the local weather forecast!
When we ask someone whether she “follows the news,” do we really know how she interprets that word, news?
She might be reading entertainment news in a printed publication and not call it “news.” But if that publication is a newspaper, then she is reading the newspaper.
Another pair of categories the researchers used is News Grazers, or people who say they check in on the news “from time to time,” and non-grazers, who get their news at regular times. The grazers now constitute 51 percent of the total — “the first time since the question was asked six years ago that a majority said they get the news from time to time.” Again I would speculate that this behavior will only increase, not decrease — so journalists need to pay attention.
The grazers spend less time each day consuming news (56 minutes per day on average vs. 79 minutes per day for non-grazers). The grazers also watch less TV news, both local (41 percent of grazers watch regularly) and network (they are “about half as likely as regular-time consumers to regularly watch network evening news broadcasts, Sunday talk shows or listen to NPR”).
Again, I’m not sure what the numbers truly tell us. If I’m online eight or 10 hours in a day, how much of that time is spent “consuming news”? I’d be hard pressed to give you an accurate answer.
(The full report is 127 pages and can be downloaded as one PDF document from The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.)