Media disruption (2): news consumption today


 

Given the primacy of the screen and the rise of mobile – the topic of the first article in this series – how and where do people get their news? If you are looking for the audience, where are they?

The primacy of the screen means media companies necessarily operate within the same digital space. Whereas newspapers, magazines, radio and television used to be defined by their distinct modes of distribution, their largest audiences are now online, and they all deliver news and information through a combination of audio, text, photographs, video, and infographics to their audiences. As a result, despite the continuing importance of established organisations on the web, there is no such thing as traditional media anymore.

In this new environment we have witnessed a shift from news and information consumed in fixed places at fixed times, to mobile news consumed at moments selected by the users. What persists in this new environment is a strong public interest in news and information. This conclusion from Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism still holds:

The audience for good journalism is large. We may think modern culture has become celebrity obsessed at the expense of news, but international survey data indicate a strong appetite for domestic and international news among all age groups, and that people still like to read.

This is reinforced by the Reuters 2014 Digital News Report, which offers a global perspective through its survey of people in ten different countries. As they found, not less than two-thirds of people expressed an interest in news:
Interest-in-news-by-country

This is supported by detailed research from OfCom on News Consumption in the UK. While recent Pew research says “millennials” – the much maligned, allegedly narcissistic 18-34 generation in the US – trail their elders in interest about government and politics, an American Press Institute study shows they nonetheless have a strong desire for news broadly defined:
How-millenials-get-news

With the organisations formerly known as ‘newspapers,’ ‘radio’ and ‘television’ operating in the same digital space, it is no surprise that people are increasingly satisfying their desire for news online. In the US, 50% say the internet is their main source of national and international news. This is below television but far above newspapers and radio. For those aged between 18 and 49, the number using the internet rises and equals or surpasses television. In the UK, the number of users going online rose from 32% to 41% in 2013-14, with the number of 16-34 year old users climbing to 60%. Reuters ten-country survey confirms that online has become at least the second most important way of accessing news.

However, saying people get news online only tells us which platform or they use. It doesn’t say anything about their main sources, which is now being shaped by their devices (a point well made by Tom Rosenstiel, director of the American Press Institute, in this talk).

With are witnessing the rise of mobile, although, as noted in the first article of the series, ‘mobile’ does not necessarily mean ‘on the move’ or ‘in transit’ given the preponderance of home and office use. One consequence is that media organisations now find most of their readers/viewers are using touchscreen devices to reach them. Pew’s State of the [American] Media report revealed that “at the start of 2015, 39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic to their sites and associated applications coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers.”

The rise of mobile changes the way news is packaged, distributed, discovered, and consumed. They have extended both the number of touch points throughout the day, and meant that news is accessed constantly rather than according to the classic consumption curve of morning, lunch and dinner. Time spent on news sites during each session is a short 3-5 minutes, but as there are multiple sessions a day, the level of news consumption rises. And the more devices people own, the more news they consume.

Frequency-of-access-by-device

Smartphones and tablets drive use of news apps rather than the mobile web through browsers. The speed and efficiency of apps have lowered the threshold to news consumption by offering a one-touch route to a recognised source. Smartphone users reportedly spend 88% of their time online in apps – although a lot of time within apps involves redirects to the mobile web, and that a lot of app time is accounted for by the dominance of Facebook.

The convenience of apps means touchscreen users access fewer news sources, with 37% relying on a single news app each week. This may mean apps limit the disaggregation of news providers fuelled by the use of search engines and social networks. The Reuters Institute survey found that “that audiences consume the majority of their online news from familiar and trusted brands, but we can also see that they are using increasingly varied ways to find that content.”

There is a lot commentary about how we are in a “golden age” of video online as more and more companies produce video, driven in large part by the advertising revenue it can generate. Forecast to make up nearly 80% of global IP traffic by 2018, we might assume video is a prominent means for delivering news stories. In the UK, the number of people downloading or watching short video clips each week has risen from 21% in 2007 to to 39% in 2014 (although the question gave music and comedy clips, rather than news, as the examples). When the Reuters Institute asked for the ways in which people in their ten-country survey had consumed news, only 10-30% named video, with headline summaries and text predominant.

Type-of-online-news-content-accessed-by-country

The important Tow Center study Video Now investigated the production and consumption of news video in ten American organisations, and found that while their was considerable investment in the area, profits were non-existent because views were very modest. While there were occasional viral succeed, on average a single video on a ‘newspaper’ site got 500-1,000 views each, with brands like Mashable hoping for a minimum of 20,000 views per video.

This may not offer a true picture of the status of video, however. Singling out video versus text for news consumption in digital space is a problem. As Video Now concluded:

People consume news by subject, not by medium. Audiences don’t say “I want to watch news video.” They come for information on specific topics: Syria, Ukraine, Obamacare, sports.

This led to an obvious and important recommendation:

Video should be embedded with other content, inside a blogpost, next to a graphic. Videos posted with other media get more plays. Those left in segregated “video” sections get ignored.

That, of course, is the very definition of ‘multimedia’ in digital space. Whereas watching video would have once required users to go to a broadcast platform, they can now find it alongside other forms of information on any digital network or site.

Touchscreen devices are changing the levels and patterns of news consumption. Building on the majority interest in news, they increase consumption by offering unlimited access to information, principally through apps, at a time and place of the user’s choosing.

They also change the practices of news consumption, and reveal that “consumption” is a complex phenomena.

The web has given us an unprecedented capacity to measure audience consumption. Previously, news consumption was measured by the circulation of print publications. This recorded the number of units purchased, but could not reveal which stories within newspapers or magazines received the most views or the longest read. On the web, all this and more can be determined, yet the focus to date on traffic numbers determined by clicks has perpetuated the superficial assessment of circulation data.

The limits of our current metrics are exposed in an important study of the available research by Irene Costera Meijer and Tim Groot Kormelink. They went beyond the medium people use, or when they use it, to look at the different ways people engaged with the news. They identified 16 different news consumption practices:

Reading
Watching
Viewing
Listening
Checking
Snacking
Scanning
Monitoring
Searching
Clicking
Linking
Sharing
Liking
Recommending
Commenting
Voting [as on Reddit]

Many of thse apply to both print and digital, and a number of them – especially checking, snacking and scanning – do not necessitate a click. And as Paul Bradshaw says, this shows that “focused reading is not confined to any one medium, and that distracted forms of consumption popularly associated with smartphone use are equally typical of how people use television, radio or print. It’s not about the medium: it’s about the user.”

Producers now have to understand the complexity of user behaviour as they hunt for their audience – or the “people formerly known as the audience,” given their capacity to produce and interact themselves. But they should be reassured the audience for news and documentary is there and growing, enabled in large part by the screens that connect them to others via the internet.

In the third article in this series, I look at the effect social media has on the production and consumption of news

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