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Get Smart About Your Readers: Ideas & Insights
Monday, August 11, 2008

To build the online audience, news isn't enough

(Rich Gordon)

In the latest research from the Readership Institute, what should we make of the findings that 62 percent of Americans have never visited their local newspaper's Web site?

Maybe they don't know about the ways these sites have become more timely and dynamic, featuring regular news updates, user comments and various new features. Or maybe they just don't feel connected to their local communities, so they gravitate to national sites (CNN.com or USAToday.com), aggregators like Google and Yahoo!, or default home pages (like those provided by Internet service providers).

A new book, "Post-Broadcast Democracy," by Markus Prior of Princeton University, offers a more persuasive answer: The core audience for news just isn't that big.

I am still working my way through Prior's rigorous, scholarly analysis - as a summary, I recommend this 18-page paper he wrote for a Harvard symposium earlier this year. But I'm already finding it most helpful in interpreting some of the realities of today's online publishing world.

Prior's book seeks to understand and explain how greater media choice affects people's interest in, and understanding of, politics. He focuses especially on people's preferences for news and entertainment. To measure these preferences, he conducted surveys about media alternatives.

For instance, he showed respondents a list of 10 programming genres (news, sports, game shows, music videos, documentaries, reality TV, soap operas, dramas, comedies and science fiction) and had them choose their top four in order. News ranks first for just 5 percent of respondents, second for 11 percent and third for 14 percent. In other words, based on this metric, less than a third of Americans consider news among their three favorite TV programming genres.

Perhaps this is not a fair estimation of the total core audience for news - certainly there are people who are heavy news consumers in print while gravitating toward entertainment on TV. But whatever the size of the news audience, Prior's book makes a compelling case that the arrival of greater media choice (via cable TV and, more recently, the Internet) is having dramatic - and unforeseen - effects on news consumption.

With access to cable and the Internet, the people Prior calls "news junkies" consume more news than ever. For instance, he finds that time spent viewing national TV news (including broadcast and cable networks) more than doubled in the average household between the mid-1990s and 2004. But that growth conceals a more complicated reality. The rise in news consumption is due solely to the news junkies.

Among people with a preference for entertainment, cable TV and the Internet just make it easier to avoid the news - and that's what they do. When most of the TV audience was shared among just three networks, many people acquired the habit of watching the network or local news. Now, the entertainment seekers simply go elsewhere.

"Fewer people watch more news," Prior writes. He ultimately estimates that just about 10-15 percent of Americans are news junkies.

Prior explores the implications of these findings by assessing people's knowledge of current affairs and their voting behavior. He finds that with the advent of more media choices, news junkies become more knowledgeable about current affairs and more likely to vote. But people who prefer entertainment know less and vote less frequently.

Two other interesting findings in Prior's book:
  • In a high-choice media environment, interest in news doesn't relate very closely to socioeconomic status - a characteristic that scholars historically found would predict media usage and political knowledge. In other words, news junkies can be found across the socioeconomic spectrum.

  • News junkies are more partisan than those who prefer entertainment - perhaps explaining the apparent growth in partisanship in government and election campaigns.
For news organizations on the Web, Prior's book suggests the need for a two-tier content approach. For news junkies, you should publish more news than ever - and the Web makes that possible. But to reach the much larger audience of people who prefer entertainment to news, you'll need to offer entertainment-oriented content and services.

This really isn't so different from what newspapers have historically provided to readers: a mix of news and entertainment. On the Web, though, newspapers have clearly emphasized news first. Which is a big part of the reason why so few people visit newspaper Web sites.


By Rich Gordon (richgor-at-northwestern.edu)
Rich Gordon is Associate Professor and Director of Digital Technology in Education at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.


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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Curmudgeonly resistance goes beyond the newsroom

(Steve Duke)

There has been a lot of talk about journalists' curmudgeon class on the Web the last couple weeks. Jay Rosen posited the "twilight of the curmudgeon class" a year ago, but it got a lot of renewed attention recently by Jeff Jarvis and others because of a couple incidents recently.

Most of the arrows have been aimed at change-resistant newsroom staffers. We've been bedeviled by our share of newsroom curmudgeons at the seminars we conduct in conjunction with ASNE. They were a serious roadblock in the beginning, but have been in decline, or fallen into silence, in the six years we've been on the road with our workshops. We still see a few, but most of the seminar participants now are more interested in learning about how to change rather than bemoaning change.

Some of the charges of curmudgeonly change-resistance in recent Web discussions have been leveled at bosses, and our recent seminar participants share that view. The journalists and web producers are ready to experiment, take risks, use new tools to connect people with news and with each other, but say they can't get traction with supervisors who can say "yes" or "no."

"My bosses pay lip service to new ideas, then block them," one participant said recently.

Steve Yelvington, commenting on one of Jarvis' curmudgeon posts said:
From what I'm seeing, most newspapers today are not curmudgeon-run organizations. There's a lot of bewilderment (and in many cases despair) but that's not the same thing.
I agree that curmudgeonliness is not the big issue at the boss level. Confusion and caution are more the case, coupled with the very real and distracting struggle to keep the mothership righted and facing into the wind while the financial storms rage.

Journalists are aware of the limitations. In a discussion about implementing innovation, one seminar participant acknowledged "new ideas take resources from existing projects. We've got a limited number of code monkeys and can't do everything."

Still for the knowledgeable, ambitious, even entrepreneurial journalists who are trying to lead the way, "frustration is at a high level," another participant said. Among the frustration drivers:
  • A lack of reader-orientation: "We're always trying to balance the interests of the people who produce the paper with the interests of the audience." (Emphasis added.)

  • A lack of information: "We don't have access to anything beyond the hits trail of yesterday."

  • A lack of business-side support: "When we propose new initiatives, the response is 'You haven't sold your ad inventory yet, so why are you planning more content and new sites?' "
That last bullet is one that needs the most immediate attention, I think. As advertising and readers slip away from newspapers, and viewers decline for TV news, the concentration has been on journalists and the imperative to change editorial content. The Readership Institute has emphasized from its very first published reports in 2000 that reaching audience requires improving editorial and advertising content, culture (breaking down the tendency to curmudgeonhood), management practices, brand perceptions, and service.

Still, all eyes have remained on journalists and content. Most of the journalists I now encounter embrace the need for change and innovation, and many are eager to engage with their counterparts in other departments.

But the interest often isn't returned. In an example we've heard echoed multiple times at our seminars, the Chicago Reader reported last month that Eileen Brown, innovation director at the Daily Herald in Chicago's suburbs, said she gets her best ideas from journalists, and that she has "to beg and plead the business side" to try new things. The newsroom is "passionate. They won't want the Titanic to sink."

One of the few places consistently focusing on the curmudgeon class on the business side is Kubas Consultants, which points out that "newspaper advertising is still being sold in much the same way as 10 years ago, and even 50 years ago," and notes that the explanation by the ad folks is "we've always done it this way." Sounds like what we used to hear from the newsroom curmudgeons, but only occasionally do now.

In a blistering indictment of the way newspaper advertising departments operate, Ed Strapagiel, executive vice president at Kubas, writes "The epitaph for the industry may well read 'Death by Conventional Wisdom.'" His primer on what's wrong with newspaper ad departments and prescription for change should be mandatory reading in every publisher's office.

While there is no denying pockets of curmudgeons remain in newsrooms, perhaps it's time to shine a light on the need for swift change in other departments, as well.


By Steve Duke (s-duke@northwestern.edu)
Steve Duke is managing director for training at the Media Management Center and Readership Institute, and an associate professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.


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Thursday, July 17, 2008

How to save young employees from the buzz saw of newspaper culture

(Vickey Williams)

For several years, studies on the millennials have concentrated on their technological savvy. Echo Boomers, as they are sometimes called, have also been labeled distracted, self-indulgent and driven by a need to be seen as cool by their peers. The bad press turned nasty with the recent release of a book by Emory Professor Mark Bauerlein speculating that this could be the Dumbest Generation.

But I think there's much more to this generation, and that they can offer traditional news organizations invaluable help as they try, in chaotic times, to invent the future. The question is, will existing newspaper culture let them?

MillennialsToday's 20-somethings are team players, problem solvers and highly tolerant of differing viewpoints. A recent webinar by research and marketing consulting firm Just Kid, Inc. noted that in fact, they are so comfortable with diversity of all types, "they think that's what makes the world fun and interesting."

If their comfort level with all things wired wasn't enough, those attributes also make me think that if they were allowed to exert influence, the millennials could be a powerful, positive force for helping old media find its way in a digital age. But I fear they might not get the chance.

My work on changing culture in newsrooms shows that young journalists intend to leave because the pace of change is too slow. (Report here). They are turned off by the tendency of veteran journalists to argue down new ideas, cling to old ways, and avoid risks. As Readership Institute research has shown, those are outcomes of newspaper people's tendencies to be oppositional, perfectionist and conventional.

I've seen the generational friction play out dozens of times as younger voices get shut down by veterans who fall back on ingrained behaviors. In one case, younger staff worked for weeks to develop and launch a blog on the paper's Web site with a youthful perspective on the local scene. At the next staff meeting, most veterans said they hadn't noticed and a few admitted never having looked at the paper's Web site at all.

Leaders who want to see every segment of staff contribute their best will recognize the influence of culture. Keeping your share of the millennials means you must:
  • Engage them in meaningful ways -- in problem-solving sessions, cross-departmental task forces, high-profile projects, post-mortems

  • Give timely responses to their ideas. "Yes," "No" or "You haven't given me enough information to decide" are really the only fair responses.

  • Teach them about the business side – so they can make the business case for their ideas.

  • Help them maintain their consumer focus. They're known for demanding quick service and solutions, and products that do what they say they will, meaning they can be great advocates for your audience.

  • Provide lots of feedback. Many in this cohort are actively seeking mentor relationships.

  • Make collaboration and trying news things basic expectations.
Veteran staffers should:
  • Partner with a younger staffer for mutual benefit: In every newsroom I've been in, veterans said they have certain skills knowledge that goes untapped – often in topics where younger staff, when polled, said they want help. Tips on storytelling in trade for a Twitter orientation? It could work.

  • Recognize there are some common values: Both veterans and newcomers put a premium on increased autonomy or independence.

  • Get over the fact that millennials work differently. Insisting on a work-life balance is healthy; it is often the perfectionism in the boomer journalist that keeps us at work after hours.

  • Accept that for them, intense electronic multitasking is a way of life, not a distraction or a sign of rudeness.

  • Offer cues on things like the importance of appropriate dress and that one well-considered memo can be more valuable than numerous emails.
Of course there are exceptions to both the generational and culture profiles in any organization. What I see generally are young journalists who don't expect to win every point in a discussion, but feel strongly they are due a seat at the table. And they may be naturally inclined to the constructive styles that could help their organizations connect with audiences and move forward. That is, if they stay around long enough.


By Vickey Williams (vickey-williams@northwestern.edu)
Vickey Williams is director of the Media Management Center's Digital Workforce Initiative.


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