“Elements of Journalism” co-author shares insights about news audiences

“We live in a user-controlled media world,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. It’s the job of news organizations to adapt their medium to meet the audiences’ behavior.

Rosenstiel recently spoke during a Brown Bag lunch at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. He shared some insights about audience data including some mistakes we make when trying to understand the data, as well as some new ideas to help journalists as they try to reach evolving news audiences.


1. Common confusion: Platforms are not sources.

We all know that more and more people are getting their news on an online or digital platform but that’s not the end of the story, said Rosenstiel.

Graphs that indicate whether people watched news on TV or read the news online indicates the delivery system, not the source.

“Sorting out where people are getting that information online is extremely difficult to do,” said Rosenstiel. “It’s getting harder and harder all the time because the metrics are a mess. The numbers that might track online activity probably don’t track mobile phones. Getting tablets in there is complicated.”

2. False: With more and more choices in a user-controlled world, the young don’t get news.

“By various measures, people are getting more news than they used to,” he said.

Mobile devices are having a great impact on news consumers, and most of those people getting news on a mobile device are younger.

3. False: Mobile will further hurt attention spans and familiar news sources.

Rosenstiel compared using tablets to print newspaper reading. You can “lean back” in your chair and read a newspaper – interacting with only one medium. Tablets have brought back this experience. By comparison, desktop and laptops encourage multitasking.

“Designers are saying when they design apps for the tablet, it’s not an experience, as Steve Jobs predicted, that is between the computer and the smart phone,” said Rosenstiel. “It’s actually a technology that’s somewhere between the computer and a print publication. You touch it. You turn pages.”

4. False: Everyone, especially the young, now get their news from social media (the filter bubble).

Social media news consumption is growing but it does not show the whole picture of media consumption. Again, platforms are not sources.

“When people say ‘I get most of my breaking news from Twitter,’ that doesn’t mean that Twitter is actually reporting the news,” said Rosenstiel.

5. False: New platforms are cannibalizing and destroying old. Twitter is somehow a threat to the newspaper.

“It’s just not that simple,” said Rosenstiel. “There is more and more research that suggest that new and old sources are interdependent in interesting ways.”

According to a NY Times study…

  • Fifty percent of people first hear about breaking news from a TV news source.
  • More than 8 in 10 continue following the story using another source. Half of those following up on the story indicated that they used a different device to learn more.
  • Six out of 10 of those using an online platform stated that they utilized a legacy news site as their second source.

“The other thing that the data showed is that news consumers are loyal across platforms,” he said. “You like the New York Times? You bookmark it on all of your gadgets.”

Rosenstiel’s ideas to guide journalists

1. The medium is not the message.

Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan is known for his famous phrase “The medium is the message.”

“I think he’s wrong,” said Rosenstiel. “I think the story is the message. The nature of the event and where we are in the arch of that story breaking dictates what we want to know and where we go to get news. It’s a user-controlled world.”

Ex. People turned on their TVs on 9/11 because they wanted to see the towers on fire.

2. So each platform is a different tool more than a competing one.

Each technology tool has strengths and weaknesses. In the print industry there were only a handful of elements for storytelling – headlines, narrative, sidebar, graphics and maps. The tools in the digital world are numerous, said Rosenstiel.

“Your challenge as the next generation of news producers is to know which tool fits with which job,” said Rosenstiel. “Let the story and its arc determine the tools you use.”

3. The next journalism is a service, not a product.

News organizations will need to invent new ways to connect and find new ways to tell stories better.

But remember one thing…

“No matter what, there are two things that you need to be able to do,” said Rosenstiel. “You need to be able to write and you must be able to think. Data visualization isn’t of any use if you haven’t understood what that data is saying, simplified it and are able to convey in a few words what the point is.”

4. Technology is an opportunity (not a threat).

“Those who look at the technology and think, ‘Ugh… not a new thing. I can’t keep up,’ are doomed to lose in this world to the people who see the value of technology,” said Rosenstiel.

5. News must adapt to people’s behavior, not the other way around.

In the pre-digital world, people had to shift their behavior to fit the news. They had to watch at 6:30 or read the paper in the morning. Now the news must fit how people live their lives. The consumer, the audience, is in charge.


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