How news consumption has changed from beats to a constant static
teaches Online Journalism at Birmingham City University
In 2007, Paul Bradshaw's A Model for the 21st Century Newsroom described how the old production line model for news was meeting a networked mode of operation - where anyone could take on editorial and distribution roles and journalists were no longer limited in the medium they could choose or the time and space to tell a story.
Now, in a series of blog posts for the College of Journalism, Bradshaw revisits his work in the light of new developments and the growing experience of organisations and individuals.
What emerges is a picture of increasing formalisation of production processes together with entirely new fields of operation. Bradshaw sees breaking news, for example, as being handled online with particular confidence, while news apps and the increasing role of data present new challenges for information management and presentation.
If the battle of the past five years has been to organise people - both within and outside the news organisation - with a focus on speed, he sees the next challenge as organising information itself - with a focus on depth.
His report is based on a combination of interviews with journalists, editors, developers and executives and a review of current literature:
News consumption has changed over the past decade from a pattern characterised by clear points in time to one that has become so uniform we are now barely aware of it: no longer an irregular but pronounced beat, it is now a constant static.
The change is not just about access to the internet but the contexts in which that access is made. The workplace has become a key site for online news consumption (Boczkowski, 2010), leading to a rise in consumption of socially 'safer' content such as sports reporting and celebrity journalism, but not more sensitive material such as politics.
This notion of the popularity of socially safe content online is supported by research into the sharing of links on Facebook which found that, of news stories that were shared, the top category was 'sports/art/entertainment' with 40% of news links shared, while the bottom category was politics, making up 9% of linked news articles.
Online, we are moving from a model of distribution in which the audience is actively engaged with the news to one where they are, according to social network researcher Danah Boyd:
"Peripherally aware of information as it flows by, grabbing it at the right moment when it is most relevant, valuable, entertaining, or insightful. To be living with, in, and around information. Most of that information is social information, but some of it is entertainment information or news information or productive information."
This new rhythm of news consumption was identified in 2008 in ethnographic research by the Associated Press. Jill, an insurance broker from Brighton, is representative:
- She watched TV news in the morning as she ate her breakfast and prepared for work
- Listened to the radio in the car on the way to work
- Checked her email every hour, seeing Yahoo headlines 10 times per day
- Received text messages and email alerts
- Had a live scoreboard on her desktop
- Listened to more radio in the car home
- In the evening she gets news through Facebook and email while watching TV.
Data on peak times of media consumption adds a quantitative dimension: radio peaks in the morning and the afternoon, TV in the evening, the web around the time that people arrive at work and at home. Similarly, email use peaks in the early morning just after web use (once people have checked the web, they check their mail), and text messaging peaks just before the peak of web use in the evening, and just before people go to bed (graphic below from PDF of Ofcom report - click to see original in context):
An understanding of these rhythms is forming the basis for a number of online publishing operations. Business Desk, for instance - an online-only operation which covers business news across three UK regions - receives 80% of its visits during a two-hour 'attention window' when its users are travelling to work, and during which the website sends out a daily email.
News online is particularly social, and related to lifestyle: news is shared, it is searched for. It is social currency, and it 'comes to me from other people'.
'Positive content' is distributed by users significantly more often than 'negative content', and the traditional neutral voice of news organisations therefore becomes problematic in distribution terms, as Joshua Benton, director of Neiman Journalism Lab, writes:
"If we tweet with wonderment and excitement ('Wow, this new WordPress levitation plugin is amazing!'), it'll get more clicks and more retweets than if we play it straight ('New WordPress plugin allows user levitation')."
This importance of social news online may be due in large part to the fact that internet use is dominated by participation in communities: in May 2010, 95% of internet users visited a site in the 'search and communities' category, for an average of six hours and 40 minutes. Facebook users alone spent six and-a-half hours on the site that month. 'News and information' sites, by comparison, were visited by 78% of users, who spent an hour and a quarter there (Ofcom).
Of course, just because a user is not on a news website does not mean they are not consuming news or information - and news organisations may have to ask whether their online distribution strategy should take this into account. Equally, news organisations should be aware of research into what people get and expect from the medium: one review of the literature on this lists the following benefits:
"Interpersonal utility, [to] pass time, information seeking, convenience and entertainment... Companionship and social needs... relaxation... Social escapism... interactive control... economic gain... fame... Problem solving, persuading others, relationship maintenance, status seeking, and personal insight."
News is connected strongly with email - both explicitly and contextually: Yahoo! Mail displays headlines while users are checking mail, for example. And consumption is, for many, a 'scratch the itch' activity undertaken because they are bored in what they are doing, not because they want to find out something specific, or are engaged in an issue.
Multitasking is identified in numerous surveys of media consumption: people consume news while doing other things. In some cases, they are digging further into the background to the news while they watch it, or talking to others about it. And for a majority of consumers news is something they stumble across while looking for something else.
Consumers are promiscuous in their news consumption: 65% of internet users do not have a favourite website, while research in 2009 by Oliver & Ohlbaum found that readers of the print edition of The Telegraph, for example, only spent 8% of their time reading online news on the website; in contrast, other print competitors in the 'quality press' accounted for 20% of their time (graphic below from The Economist - click to see original in context):
The situation is still developing, with the increasing penetration of smartphones and tablets presenting further types of consumption behaviour which are different again from that of the web. Data from ComScore suggests that smartphones and tablets are shifting online news consumption from 'first thing at work' to 'first thing in the morning', a pattern repeated in data from Instapaper (graphic below from post by Nate Weiner of Read It Later - click to see original in context):
These devices are used less throughout the working day and there is a suggestion that for many news consumers they help break the association of the internet - i.e. computers - with work. Mobile devices are social devices; tablets are a consumer technology. It is not only their technical functionality that is important but also their social contexts and meaning. News organisations - still getting to grips with publishing news online - are having to adapt again for patterns of mobile consumption that are very different from that seen on the desktop (graphic below from The Wall Street Journal - click to see original in context).
But while consumers are increasingly experiencing news as something that surrounds them - sometimes from multiple outlets - they also demand depth. In the AP study, despite their tendency to 'snack' on news, people expressed a desire for more depth in their news: they were fatigued with constant bite-sized updates. Delivering depth was one of AP's three key recommendations, along with improving discoverability of deep content and creating social currency.
In a forthcoming post I will explore how news organisations are reacting to those desires for depth and for social currency.
Paul Bradshaw - @paulbradshaw - is founder of the Online Journalism Blog and the crowdsourcing website Helpmeinvestigate. He is a visiting professor at City University, London, and runs the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University.