We’re on the cusp of a new news ecosystem

I was trying to watch “The Social Network” on ABC the other night. First commercial at 12 minutes and it lasted three minutes or so. Second commercial at about 25 minutes. Another three minutes of commercials. By the end of the first hour, there was movie for seven minutes and ads for three.

I was witnessing the dying throes of broadcast television.

Other than watching live sports, “among 18- to 24-year-olds, 43 percent didn’t watch any live TV over the past seven days, and 40 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds said the same.

Why sit through long stretches of ads, inserted without conscience in the middle of movie scenes, when you don’t have to. And with Hulu, Amazon+, GoHBO and, of course, Netflix, you don’t. (Coincidentally and opportunistically, one of the ads on The Social Network was to watch the Academy Award nominated films on Google Play.)

There are a lot of implications in the poll referenced above, not the least of which involves broadcast television. Both Politico and Clay Shirky examine its impact on political advertising. I’m pleased on that level: the fewer people watching attack ads that misrepresent a candidate’s record, the better. We know the attack ads work, and when they spew misinformation, they hurt the political system.

But I am worried about the lack of political engagement that will result. As more people leave commercial television viewing — and newspaper reading, for that matter — they are less informed about the civic issues of the day. Elon University Poll just released information showing that 64 percent of registered voters in North Carolina know little or nothing of a massive coal ash spill in the Dan River. The spill has dominated newspaper front pages across the state, made the national TV news and the New York Times. It has raised political repercussions as people wondered whether the government has been defanged in its environmental oversight.

More tellingly, 80 percent of the 18-30 age group had heard little or nothing about the spill.  Fifty-two percent of the 65+ age group had heard little or nothing about it.

Put another way, 48% of the group most likely to read newspapers and to watch broadcast television news said they had heard a lot about the spill. Only 20 percent of the group most likely to skip newspapers and live television had heard a lot about it.

If you believe the idea espoused by a student several years ago that “if the news is that important it will find me,” then the nation’s third largest coal ash spill that threatens wildlife and vegetation for miles isn’t important yet.

Except, of course, that it is.

In my classes, students’ primary source of news is the social networks. They follow links that their friends post if they’re interested. So, in a small, unscientific and informal poll last week, most of them knew about the Ukraine, about the Duke porn actress and about Girl Scouts’ cookie sale outside marijuana dispensaries. Few knew about Pussy Riot…or the coal ash spill.

I am an Internet optimist and a great believer in the intelligence and resourcefulness of the “younger generation.” But the idea that “once people get out of college, get a job and settle down, they’ll pay attention to the news” hasn’t been true for 20 years. So as with so many other new technologies, we’re at a new age of engagement, I think. My students are excited about Facebook Paper, for instance. Instagram’s news feed is popular, too. News organizations are getting smarter – yes, still aways to go – about how to effectively use Twitter.

The tools are emerging, and they still aren’t established. Someone smart is going to come up with a killer news app.

5 thoughts on “We’re on the cusp of a new news ecosystem

  1. To be honest, I’m not sure what sort of change this is. In 1994, polls showed more people were getting their political news from radio than from newspapers, which explains the other polls showing people thought the country was still in recession even as the Fed was applying the brakes.

    We’ve always been pickers-and-choosers. When I was in Greensboro, we saw reader data showing what percentage of people read each section. We were humbled to see that the Sunday ad inserts were just as popular as (or in some cases, more popular than) our “news” sections.

    So the problem has always been there. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t work to solve it.

  2. Thanks, Beau. All true. What’s alarming — and I think different — is the size of the group that is getting less news than ever.

  3. I often wonder if what is really changing is that people who never were that interested in the news now have other outlets for the things that they bought the paper for — or if they were interested in things that the paper has cut to reduce costs. The paper was always a bundle. Cost-cutting makes it less of one, and people who don’t want a bundle at all have more options now.

  4. I think that’s part of it, Guy. I think there is so much that newspapers do cover that is important to civic life but just plain uninteresting. Most of my students love BuzzFeed, which, despite it’s quizzes, has a decent amount of news.

    And, of course, with newspapers the vehicle is outdated. With TV, the distribution system is.

  5. Pingback: This Week in Review: Flipboard scoops up Zite, and Getty sets its photos free (kind of)

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