September 12, 2010

Americans Spending More Time Following the News

Commentary

A NEW PHASE IN OUR DIGITAL LIVES
A commentary on the findings by Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the
Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism

Some people describe it as The End of the Internet, though that is probably a misnomer.

Others, at the risk of cliché, might call it News 3.0.

Maybe the best way to understand what is occurring today with the way people interact with the news and technology is to think of it as the end of our digital childhood.

By whatever term you give it, the latest biennial survey on news consumption from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reveals signs of a new phase, perhaps even a new era, in the acquisition and consumption of news.

And there is every reason to expect the shift will only accelerate now with a new wave of technology devices – from smartphones to iPad-style devices – which the data do not fully measure.

In the last two years, people have begun to do more than replace old news platforms with new ones. Instead, the numbers suggest that people are beginning to exploit the capacity of the technology to interact with information differently.

This notion – that we are beginning to use the tools differently without necessarily abandoning the old ones – can be seen first in the amount of time people spend getting news. Compared with much of the past decade, people say they are spending more time each day acquiring or interacting with news.

In addition to the roughly one hour they spend with traditional platforms – which is largely unchanged from a decade ago – on average they spend another 13 minutes a day getting news online. Traditional platform use has stabilized (or has declined only slightly) in the last few years. And the online numbers, as the survey report notes, do not include time spent getting news on cell phones or other digital devices, the arena where news producers are now focusing so much of their effort and seeing so much potential.
The data reinforce findings that we began to see earlier this year when the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Internet and American Life Project collaborated on a survey that explored the new participatory culture for news. That survey asked a new battery of questions and opened up new areas of inquiry. The newest People-Press survey also tracks the trends on long-standing questions, adding to our knowledge about these shifts.

Why have we moved into this new phase — where people are not simply replacing old technologies with new but using new ones for different things or in different ways, augmenting their more traditional behavior?

One explanation is that the content is changing. News producers are beginning to understand how they can deliver news in new ways to create new understanding, whether through the use of online graphics, customizing news to fit a consumer’s interest or location, or recognizing the public as a community that participates in the news rather than an audience that receives it. Another factor is improved connections and faster speeds that bring the technology’s potential to life. A third is that consumers themselves are changing, recognizing that each platform has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. The strength of an aggregator or search engine, which allows someone to find answers to his or her own specific questions, is very different from the agenda-setting power of a newscast or a newspaper front page (even online), in which the news is ordered and presented for you. The power of a social networking site to tell you what people you know are thinking about or reading is different than the convenience of using a smartphone on the spur of the moment to check a fact or scan a headline.

And these notions are reinforced in the data about why people say they use different media. News has many different functions in our lives; the proliferation of devices, platforms and products makes that variety more recognizable for us as consumers. The quick scan of news we might get from a cell phone is a different experience from the deeper interaction that users of the iPad say that they experience with those devices. The survey data show this is even true for traditional media. A large majority of regular CNN viewers say they turn to it for the latest news and headlines, while Bill O’Reilly’s viewers turn to him for interesting views and opinions. The numbers reveal USA Today has a different function for its readers (primarily the latest headlines) than do the two other national papers in the United States, the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, which are more valued for in-depth reporting.

The numbers also reveal some older publications, because of their strengths, are appealing to new audiences in ways they almost certainly never could have without the creative destruction and promise of the digital age. Regular readers of The New York Times are young – 34% are younger than 30, compared with 23% of the public – suggesting that a new generation of readers is discovering virtues of the newspaper that had been known as the Old Gray Lady. The growing popularity of search engines, directing people to sites like nytimes.com, apparently has had an effect.

It all points to something we might have forgotten. The medium may not quite be the message, as Marshall McLuhan argued two generations ago. But the medium does make a difference. Different platforms serve us differently, and there is now more evidence people are integrating all of them into their lives.