For a variety of reasons, I’ve been immersing myself in the wealth of research out recently on news consumers. It is thought-provoking reading that everyone interested in the future of news should spend time absorbing. The patterns of news consumption have changed dramatically in recent years, and even more changes lie ahead. Those of us seeking to build the digital news products of the future need to understand these changes and our future audiences.
The most engrossing report was released in August by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which titled its biennial news consumption survey “Audience Segments in a Changing News Environment: Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources.” It’s not that it’s taken me two months to digest the 129 pages and thousands of data points, but it easily could have. I also was working my way through 71 pages of “A New Model for News: Studying the Deep Structure of Young-Adult News Consumption,” the insightful ethnographic research released by The Associated Press in June, and 57 pages of “The Changing Newsroom: What is Being Gained and What is Being Lost in America’s Daily Newspapers?” from The Project for Excellence in Journalism. (Now that paragraph is a mouthful.
Pew’s identification of two key online news audiences – the Net-Newsers and the Integrators – is a valuable distinction. For most of the first decade or so of creating online news products, we were mostly targeting anyone who happened to be online and interested in news. If anything, most traditional news organizations shied away from creating online news products that we too appealing to their ink-on-paper readers. No sense encouraging them to switch. But as I look around at online news sites today, I wonder if we’re ready for the coming wave of online news consumers.
Lately, it seems as if most online news products are being targeted squarely at the web-savvy Net-Newsers. While smaller in numbers, Net-Newsers do spend more time getting news online, which makes them appealing. But I’d posit that Integrators – those getting their news from both traditional and new media – are poised for greater growth and represent a better opportunity.
After all, what happens when more newspapers cut back and send their readers online looking for news, as the Christian Science Monitor just announced it would do. Will these Integrators know how to discover news of interest to them? Will these Integrators be comfortable with the latest social media approach to finding news? Will people used to scanning headlines while turning the pages of a newspaper be confused by online navigation and tiny headlines crammed on a small computer screen? If news sites don’t make them more accommodating to these less savvy users, will they get the traffic they so desperately need to make up for the lost print advertising revenue?
At last week’s New Business Models for News Summit, I was in a group charged with creating a hypothetical newsroom budget with no real guidance on what it would produce. After much debate about whether this hypothetical newsroom still had to produce a newspaper or just an online news site, we decided it would be the newsroom left standing after a major metropolitan newspaper stopped publishing in print. We quickly realized that we’d need to reduce the size of the newsroom from 200 to about 35, given the revenue we could expect from this hypothetical site generating 75 million pageviews a month. A sobering thought. And none of the budget was allocated to creating a news product that might appeal to former newspaper readers. In fact, it seemed to be a given that newspaper sites spend too much time on design and should just be turning out content on basic blogging platforms.
We need to find ways to make online news appealing to both Net-Newsers and Integrators – perhaps even to Traditionalists, who may soon find the Christian Science Monitor isn’t the only defunct newspaper.