Reality Check

By RJI on May 17, 2010 0 Comments

by Wally Dean

“What do you do when the techies are crazier than the luddites?” -Jaron Lanier in “You Are Not a Gadget”

In the frenzy to reinvent journalism, a couple of fundamental realities about the production and consumption of news seem to be getting lost amid all the commotion of our blogging, tweeting, linking-in, Facebooking, and more recently, going mobile.

The first is that mainstream media, particularly the institution formerly known as print, supplies virtually all the reportorial journalism of civic decision-making. The other is that local TV – and its visual story telling – remains the most popular way to consume news and information.

New media has now been around long enough to see more clearly how the public interacts with news providers in the virtual marketplace. We have a better idea what “sticks” and what will likely be ignored. And importantly, we have a better sense of what is not changing.

We know, for example, that when it comes to informing the community about news, even an Internet-engaged citizenry is a poor substitute for the “old” media.

Look beyond the headline informing us that 37% of Internet users participate in the news process and one discovers that just 9% actually contribute to “the creation of news” by transmitting their own article, opinion piece, picture or video to an online news site. And most of that engagement is reactive – commenting about or sharing an item from the legacy press. Pew Internet Project  "Understanding the Participatory News Consumer"

It’s the same story for the more public iteration of on-line engagement, the citizen or community news site. Last year, Project for Excellence in Journalism researchers drilled into the “news ecosystem” of one American city, Baltimore, and examined a week’s worth of content from more than 50 old and new media sources to see “How News Happens.”

The “old” media – led by the Baltimore Sun newspaper – created 96% of the content offering new information and, by doing so, also set the news agenda for everybody else. How News Happens: A Study of the News Ecosystem of One American City.

Beyond acknowledging that citizen journalism is more hope than reality, it’s important to try to understand why this seemingly good idea isn’t panning out. The answer can be found, perhaps, in a distinction between what used to be called civic journalism and today’s citizen journalism.

Civic journalism sought to re-balance the relationship between mainstream media and its readers, viewers, and listeners by creating a more two-way, participatory, affiliation that would produce more relevant and responsive stories.

Citizen journalism, on the other hand, is inherently more independent – no printing press or transmitter required – but also depends on the energy and interests of the individual contributor. Essentially, the citizen journalist is a “news hobbyist,” highly committed but on their own terms and schedules.

A recent survey of 91 of the most successful citizen news site operators found that while all want to increase traffic, they care more about impact than profits. “The financial side of the operation seemed almost an afterthought,” wrote researchers, “very few (citizen web site operators) said they were in it mainly to make money. Generating revenues was the lowest measure of success.” 2010 State of the Media Report

This high level of personal commitment is the strength and weakness of community journalism. As study co-author Esther Thorson of the University of Missouri noted, citizen sites “are usually fueled only by personal motivation and when that disappears, so will the site.”

A second reality has to do with the consumption, as opposed to the production, of news.

By a fairly wide margin, TV – not the Internet – remains the public’s favorite source for news. The Pew Research Center recently reported that on a typical day, 78% of Americans get news from local TV, 73% from a network or cable, and 61% on line. (54% tune into radio and 50% read a local newspaper). "Understanding the Participatory News Consumer"

Nor is this particularly surprising when one considers the audience. An earlier Pew study divided news consumers into four categories. Almost half, 46-percent, are “Traditionalists” – older, less educated, less affluent. Though most have a computer, few get news on line. They rely heavily on TV news. Why TV? In part it’s because these folks – almost half the audience – say they understand news better by seeing pictures rather than reading or hearing stories.

Another 23-percent of the audience, called “Integrators,” is composed of affluent, well-educated, middle-aged people for whom TV is also the main source of news, though supplemented by the Internet at work. Together, Traditionalists and Integrators represent a visually predisposed news audience that includes seven of every ten people in the country (69%).

The “Disengaged” (14%) do not closely follow any news while the smallest group, “Net-Newsers,” comprise just 13 percent of the audience. And though three-quarters of Net-Newsers cite the Internet as their primary source of news, their on-line destination is usually a legacy news organization web site (72%). "Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources"

Yet it’s these “Net-Newsers” who are now driving much of the R & D in journalism. That’s to be expected – printers started the first broadsheets and electrical engineering majors invented the broadcast transmitter – but it’s nevertheless worth keeping in mind. Net-Newsers may not be driving the train, but the train can go only where track has been laid. And that’s what’s happening now – lots of track and spurs and switches being imagined.

And sometimes, it seems, over-imagined.

Take a recent warning that, “within 35 months the whole newspaper industry needs to move its emphasis from the static Web to the mobile Web. From 17-inch displays to 3-inch displays.”


High resolution aside, the 3-inch screen is tiny, especially compared to the 32 or 52 or 72-inch flat panel in the den. Maybe stock quotes, headlines, simple maps, traffic and weather. But what about stories? Even told visually, how certain are we that people will use their smart phone to follow the health care or immigration in the same way they play “Medieval: Total War, Anarchy 2087”?

This is where survey data can enlighten but also confuse. The new Nielsen “Three Screen Report,” for example, finds that the number of Americans who used mobile gadgets to watch video rose 57 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009 compared to the same period a year earlier. Sounds significant. But the statistic is more about capability – the number of people who’ve acquired “smart phones” – than actual consumption. In fact, says Nielsen, yearly quarter-to-quarter mobile video viewership “was flat.” Moreover, when compared to other viewing, it’s infinitesimal – on average just 4 minutes a week. That compares to 22 weekly minutes watching on-line (laptop/desktop) video, 4 weekly hours surfing the web, and almost 35 hours a week watching TV.

While the data on smart phone video may be more bullet point than headline, two other nuggets in the report are worth noting. “Time shift” TV viewing in which a DVR, the digital video recorder now in 35% of American households, was used to record and play back TV programs was up 25% to just more than 2 hours a week. And web surfing while also watching TV increased 35% to three-and-a-half hours a week.

"The initial fear,” said Nielsen, “was that Internet and mobile video and entertainment would slowly cannibalize traditional TV viewing, but the steady trend of increased TV viewership alongside expanded simultaneous usage argues something quite different." "More Americans use TV, Internet at same time"

The lesson here is that the audience, the nine of ten people who are not “Net-newers,” is the ultimate “decider.” As Professor Bob Papper, a long-time media researcher, told an academic conference a few years ago: “Just because it’s invented doesn’t mean anybody will use it.”

On the other hand they might, which is why the iPad is so interesting. Though not particularly popular with techies, who believe Apple should have made a more sophisticated device, the iPad and its 9.7-inch screen looks like a hit with consumers, one-million of whom purchased the device in the first thirty days after its release. Perhaps it will be the platform on which on-line advertising finally finds its legs. And maybe legacy newsrooms, too.

The point is that we won’t really know until the public tries it. If they like something, we must adapt. But knowing what already work is just as important. New media doesn’t make journalism succeed any more than old media makes it fail.