Wednesday, February 22, 2006
RESEARCH: Sacramento Bee report surveys students' news appetites
PUBLISHED: Feb. 21, 2006
Media Savvy: No room for news
Today's tech-savvy youths lack an appetite for traditional media
By Sam McManis
Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
Among her circle of friends at California State University, Sacramento, Sasha Krongos might be considered something of a freak. She, like, follows the news. Not obsessively, mind you. The 19-year-old sophomore from Fortuna has a life, after all. But she makes a habit of leaving CNN on while she gets ready for school. And when her Yahoo home page pops up, she'll usually click on the link to news headlines. But newspapers? Not so much. Too time-consuming and, besides, you have to pay for them.
Radio? Nah - she's got her iPod. And local TV newscasts? "Only at night when I'm trying to fall asleep," she says. "I try to pick up little things, here and there, about the news. I'm a social science major, so maybe I'm different," Krongos says one recent afternoon while hanging out at the student union. "But my friends just don't care. I'm always surprised when they don't know stuff."
Krongos doesn't fault her friends, though. Rather, she blames the mainstream media for failing to connect with people of her generation. "All they think we care about is entertainment news," she says. "Yes, I'm a sucker for pop culture. But the media directs the actual news toward older people."
Well, what about CNN - her primary news source? The network recently elevated Anderson Cooper, 38, to be its main anchorman in a push, network executives say, for the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. No go. "To college students," says Krongos with a smile, "he is definitely not young."
Reaching younger news consumers - people just like Krongos - is widely seen as the biggest challenge for media today. Study after study shows that young people (teens and 20-somethings) are ignoring the news in alarming numbers. But alarming to whom? Well, the news organizations, of course. But it also should be a societal concern, says David T. Z. Mindich, a former CNN producer and author of "Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News" (Oxford University Press, $20, 192 pages). Mindich's argument: Our very democracy hinges upon an informed citizenry plugged in to current events. "How do you hold the government and its leaders accountable if you don't follow the news?" Mindich asks. "There's always been a segment of the population that will never follow the news. The problem is that the numbers have increased a lot in the last 30 or 40 years."
A 2005 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that young people spend 6 hours and 21 minutes per day using media - 3 hours and 51 minutes of it watching TV. Yet, only 6 percent of respondents said they watched the news. And numerous other surveys show that although young people log on to the Internet often, they don't use it to get news. Likewise, newspaper readership among youths has fallen steadily since 1972, as has viewership of network TV news and magazine readership. As a result, the so-called mainstream media, which include daily newspapers such as The Bee, have responded with a number of initiatives.
The Bee, as has almost every metropolitan newspaper, has significantly bulked up its online presence. It posts news on its site, sacbee.com, throughout the day and features a regular pop music podcast. Network and local TV news have responded, as well. ABC's "World News Tonight" launched an afternoon Web cast with anchorwoman Elizabeth Vargas. NBC anchorman Brian Williams has a blog dealing with the news-selection process. CBS News has begun a feature, "Assignment America," in which viewers pick one of three story ideas for correspondent Steve Hartman to report. (One viewer choice in early February: Do-It-Yourself Funerals.) All three major Sacramento TV news stations provide streaming video of news stories on their Web sites, and Channels 3 and 10 recently started offering content that can be downloaded for a fee onto consumers' cell phones.
Other, more radical, approaches are being tried elsewhere. Gannett, the country's largest newspaper chain, publishes youth-oriented tabloids in a dozen markets. Chicago had a commuter tabloid war between RedEye (from the Tribune) and Red Streak (from the Sun-Times), before Red Streak folded in late December. The Associated Press has launched "asap," a package of print stories and audio downloads aimed at the 18-to-34 demographic. So far, asap editor Ted Anthony says, 235 newspapers subscribe to the service.
"This is a direct response to the newspaper industry's attempt to attract his audience," Anthony says. "We want to find a way to drag (young readers) either back to the newspaper or get them to look for the first time at the newspaper's Web site. "Text and photos, which was the default way of telling stories, is not necessarily the best way anymore."
Is all this working? Well, when two dozen local college students were interviewed for this story, many said they felt they were talked down to by mainstream media. "It's more interesting for me to log on to (Internet) forum boards and see what other people ... are saying about current events than listen to a report on the news for two minutes that isn't very informative at all," says Taylor Wang, a 23-year-old senior at UC Davis.
Avi Ehrlich, a senior journalism major at CSUS, put it more bluntly: "We get exactly what we want when we want it instead of somebody deciding for us what we need." Still, those in the media aren't ready to write off young people. They continue to grapple with the reasons why a generation (some say two generations) is just not "consuming" news.
But their frustration shows.
"They totally don't care," says Michael Rosenblum, a TV producer and New York University professor who in August helped launch the Al Gore-spearheaded "Current" digital cable channel, which is aimed at younger viewers. "They are so thoroughly disconnected to the news that there's no intellectual foundation upon which to build. "I have 350 students at NYU, a good school. They are smart. But they have no sense of history or what's news. There's a disconnect between the realities of their lives and what the news presents."
Kevin Krim, manager of the blog Livejournal, which has more than 2 million users, says the fragmentation of information sources has only made it more difficult to reach youths. "These kids are a hyper-connected, multitasking crowd with five IM windows open at once, the TV going, a video streaming on their laptop and their homework book open," Krim says. "How do you compete with that?"
Another obstacle, says Jim Morris, executive producer of Channel One (a newscast played in schools nationwide), is that young people haven't learned to differentiate between serious news products and opinion blogs, or even gossip sites. "To many kids on the Internet, sacbee.com is equivalent, news-wise, to the Entertainment Tonight Web site," Morris says. "The difficult task for mainstream media is how to make the news relevant to to them." Convergence of "information delivery systems," says Morris and others, may be what stops the circulation bleeding and ratings drain.
"Young people are less interested in quote, the news, unquote, but remain extremely interested in information," says Ellin O'Leary, executive director of Youth Radio in Berkeley, which produces segments for National Public Radio as well as content for print outlets and the Internet. "They're coming up through a tremendous information revolution. They're mixing media and formats." Therefore, at Youth Radio, student workers are no longer trained in just one medium, O'Leary says. "The next generation of media producers will be more versatile," she says. "We used to train our people sequentially - radio, then Web, writing, then add TV and music later. Now, they're introduced to all of it as soon as they walk in the door."
The AP's Anthony is putting that theory into practice with the wire service's new project. "Maybe a certain story will best attract readers of any age, but particularly that (18-to-34) demographic, in a two-minute audio form," he says. "They have two minutes to listen in their busy schedules." Indeed, young people say they simply don't have time to sit through a 30-minute TV newscast or to read the newspaper cover to cover.
"I barely have time to eat in the morning," says Yasmine Bikul, a junior at CSUS. "I go from school to work to homework. I don't have the time to pay - what is it, now? - 50 cents for a paper. I have my computer. I can flip onto the Net and get information there."
The numbers don't bear that out, however. Only 11 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds surf the Web for news, according to a 2002 Roper Global Geographic Literacy Survey. And a recent Pew Internet and American Life report showed that young people ranked news consumption a distant sixth in their Web-usage habits - well behind e-mailing, instant messaging and interactive blog sites such as MySpace and Livejournal.
As for where they go online for news, young people seek out non-journalistic Web sites, such as Yahoo, America Online and Google, to get a Cliff Notes-type of information, with news links and video clips on demand. Some "vlogs" - seemingly as ubiquitous as pop-up ads - scooped mainstream media in coverage of the Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. The most popular Web "news" sites, such as Rocketboom.com (100,000 downloads daily), mix humor and esoteric content with topical reports. And shows such as TV's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" are going over well with younger people.
"I can't watch some news stations that are monotone and dry," says UC Davis senior Kristen Gunther, 22. "I can't learn through osmosis if I fall asleep." Which explains the success of Rocketboom, which is entertaining, opinionated and doesn't try to be comprehensive, says producer Andrew Michael Baron. "We are open and transparent about our biases," Baron says. "When you watch the news, or even listen to news commentary on TV, the people who are talking tell you that they are the experts and that they know that what they are saying is true."
Alan Weiss, executive producer of "Teen/Kids News," which is beamed into school classrooms, says young people don't want a voice of authority. "The way we do it is to have the news presented by someone their age," Weiss says. "That gets their attention and keeps them from feeling like they're being lectured to."
Where does that leave mainstream media?
"The media companies that survive are the ones that converge and blur," predicts Bob Papper, a professor at Ball State University in Indiana who has analyzed media use by people of all ages. "For instance, someday, newspapers will just be boutique subsets of news Web sites. And TV news will see more traffic on the Web than on the tube."
The American Press Institute recently began a $2.25 million initiative called "Newspaper Next," to advise print publications about dealing with the competition from "new media." "It's too early to say it's too late for newspapers," says Stephen Gray, a former newspaper publisher and editor who is the managing director of the project. "But you ignore it at your peril."
Gray advocates so-called "citizen journalism," in which community members report on hyper-local events (Little League games and church picnics) filtered through the news organization's editors. And, because of the 24-hour time lag for the print medium, that means delivering that news online and directly to electronic devices. "If I'm an editor or publisher, instead of the old view of 'I'm responsible for a newspaper,' the new view should be, 'I'm responsible for this territory we consider our own and everyone in it,' " Gray says. "I don't know if you're ever going to persuade this Generation Y group to pick up a paper. But if you do it in a content they use - mobile, a discussion site, a weekly magazine - you might connect with them."
By the same token, Morris of Channel One says you won't get young people to watch TV news unless it involves a give-and-take. "It's two-way communication - they demand instant feedback," Morris says. "It's a hook to get them into a story. Otherwise, you lose them. It's that way for me. " I'm a journalist, and if I can't get my kid interested in news, who
INTERESTED IN THE NEWS?
Percentage of respondents who "definitely" or "generally" agree with the
"I need to get the news (world, national, sports, etc.) every day," by
Source: DDB Needham Lifestyle Survey, 2000; from "Tuned Out: Why Americans
Under 40 Don't Follow the News," by David T.Z. Mindich
About the writer:
"Media Savvy" by The Bee's Sam McManis runs Tuesdays in Scene. He can be
reached at (916) 321-1145 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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