When News Isn’t News

Posted May 10th, 2011 at 6:03 pm (UTC-4)

How Long Before “New” Media Becomes “Old”?

This morning began with an experiment.

Rather than pick up my daily newspaper, flip on the radio or even look at the television, I decided to get all my news solely from my iPad.

photo: David Byrd

It was different…and honestly, not very satisfying.

For example, browsing through Google News there were at least a dozen different reports on Microsoft’s impending purchase of Skype – a story that broke too late for newspapers but surely would have been on the radio – but not a single preview of today’s Senate hearing on mobile phone privacy.  I skimmed through Twitter and found it long on opinion and short on news.  It was still too early for most of my Facebook friends to have shared any current stories that interested them (but did catch some funny dog videos) so I scanned the websites of several news sources I trust.

All the reports in print were no doubt there online – assuming I had the patience to thumb through them all.  But after five or six headline links, my eyes started to glaze.  Headlines began to blur into each other and within 10 minutes or so I simply gave up, left to hunt out that morning’s paper edition of the Washington Post.  Newsprint in hand, in just a few minutes I learned about the current U.S. Congressional debt ceiling debate, the outing of a CIA station chief in Pakistan (and who might be responsible), a closed-circuit TV news program in local prisons, and a few other items I never would have found on the Internet.

Old-fashioned?  Perhaps.  But it turns out I’m not alone.

“What are we not learning about?  What is happening that gets lost?” asks Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.  “Every time I flip through a print newspaper, instead of scrolling to ‘uh, this story’s on my phone’ and picking which ones I’m going to read, when I do the print version I find stories that I dive into that I hadn’t noticed on my phone or my tablet.”

Mitchell is the co-author of a new Pew study exploring how the Web and mobile devices have changed American’s news appetites – what they read, how they find it, and “what lures them away,” as the report concludes.  Not surprisingly, there’s no one single type of news diet:

“Many of us now are what we would call news grazers, where we come back to news over the course of the day several times.  First thing in the morning we’ll get a little bit of news, we’ll get a little more news once we get into the office.  Then we’ll get a little news before lunchtime; we’ll check in again when we go to see what our phone alerts have been.  So there’s a constant plugging in and out of the news cycle over the course of a day.  You compare that to saying ‘my news time is at 7 in the morning with a cup of coffee’, to tune in to the network evening news at 6 o’clock each evening – that’s completely changed.  So people are getting little pieces of news over the course of a day.  And that leads to another change which is this kind of incremental reporting of news.  That is, as news became a 24-hour process, the way that much of the reporting has occurred is incremental – piece by piece by piece.   And in many cases, it’s up to the consumer to add up those pieces together and figure out the whole of the story.”

Keeping with the consumer analogy, Mitchell says some people nibble while others feast.  Some prefer fast food; others like home-cooked.  But increasingly everyone, the report concludes, shares what’s on their menu.  “Consumers (are) saying, ‘Oh wow, I found this story that’s interesting, I’m going to post it on my Facebook page, I’m going to email it around to my friends, I’m going to put it on whatever social network it is that I take part in,'” says Mitchell.  “So (they’re) really becoming a process of the flow and cycle of a news story from start to finish.”

Listen to our complete interview with Amy Mitchell here:

There are some surprises.  For example, some social networks aren’t nearly as popular as a means for sharing news as might be expected.  And even in the era of Web 2.0, Mitchell says some old-fashioned websites still dominate:

“Clearly, Google is still the single-most prominent driver of traffic to news sites, averaging about 30% of traffic to these sites.  Facebook averages more around 3%.  And in this report, Facebook even stands out more than a direct driver than the numbers that came out on Twitter.  Information, and potentially news stories, are getting passed along through other means.

“Clearly what this adds up to is that sharing of news is becoming a very important element of the news eco-system today, of the way information travels and a news story travels, and that there’s a back-and-forth relationship of going from the news outlet to the consumer, from the consumer back to the news outlet, to other consumers, that can then get back to the news outlet, going back-and-forth.”

Lots of choice, or more of the same?

But pushing the consumer analogy one final step,  if news consumers are eating shorter meals, are they still getting the same amount of nutrition?  Put another way, is a 3500 word enterprise feature probing the causes of the global financial slump on a par with the latest interchangeable celebrity scandal?

“News, now, is consumed through the same means as many other kinds of information,” notes Pew’s Amy Mitchell.  “It becomes news-information.  At the same time, what we see in some of the survey work that we’ve done, consumers are pretty aware of the different kinds of information, and why they turn to one outlet vs. another – why it is they turn to a cable talk show and then why it is that they turn to a morning newspaper.”

All of this may be interesting; some of the research is clearly new.  But ultimately, it’s hardly news at all – either for those who produce it or those who consume it.  Network viewership, especially for news, continues to plummet while dozens of newspapers have either moved entirely online or given up altogether.   The migration of eyeballs from newsprint and TV to the Internet is as old as…well, almost as old as the Internet itself.

“We’ve been noting these changes over the last decade,” admits Mitchell.  When asked what the formula is for reporters who want both quality journalism and huge numbers of clicks is, Mitchell just laughs.  “Well I think that’s something that every news organizations is trying to figure out.”

2 responses to “When News Isn’t News”

  1. Anthony Makara says:

    An important factor behind news content on the internet is that outlets are very conscious that the online user is likely to move away at any given moment, and is no longer part of a captive audience as with TV, Radio or Print Media. This creates the quick-fix info culture by which a lot of people are aware of a lot of headline news but do not take the time to study the issues in depth. I find the effect of this on the young particularly worrying. Hopefully those who want to properly understand events will restrict themselves to one or two trusted online sources for news.

  2. Reagan Thomas says:

    My first instinct is to chide the author for lacking command of Internet resources as each of the stories cited from the Washington Post are also easily found online. Instead, I will concede that the way online news is delivered and how it is greeted by the news consumer is, or at least has the potential to be, very different from printed media. I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong or inadequate in that difference from print, but it does present some challenges.

    When a reader picks up a copy of the Washington Post or any other publication, they are choosing to let the people behind that medium present what stories they decided were important, relevant or interesting. It can be quite interesting, the breadth of topics encountered when you read a decent newspaper from start to finish, but you are still confined to that one venue. Readers generally choose which print media to read based on local relevance, common ideology or other preconception of its type of content. The choices span beyond even the disparate range of The Weekly World News to The Economist. It’s the reader’s choice and yes, sometimes they chose both!

    The Internet presents those same sources and potentially more. Where things begin to diverge from print media are how those choices are made apparent to the reader. If they go directly to the Washington Post’s web site, they can expect to see very much what the print version would provide. If instead they go to a news aggregator such as news.google.com, the choices become at once more numerous and less clearly categorized, in spite of what effort Google may put into organizing it. In many cases, “news sites” encrust the borders of a real news item with links to celebrity gossip and similar attractive fluff in an effort to lengthen your stay, maximize your clicks. It’s like interspersing your WaPo with pages from the Weekly World News, Teen Beat and People magazine. With a few clicks and a search or two later, you might easily mix with blogs and crackpot websites that take you a critical step away from news to plain misinformation.

    I believe as Internet news delivery matures, trustworthy venues will continue to emerge and be recognized, but there will always remain traps for the unsophisticated reader.

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