How college students get the news


This is how one of my student’s began the diary of her day’s media interactions:

  • 8:15 a.m.: phone alarm sounds, snooze it
  • 8:30 a.m.: phone alarm sounds again, snooze it
  • 8:45 a.m.: phone alarm sounds again, turn it off
  • 8:50 a.m.: begin checking phone
  • Check text messages, respond
  • Check UNC emails
  • Check personal emails
  • Check Facebook
  • Check Twitter
  • Check Yik Yak
  • 9:05 a.m. Turn on laptop and begin work

That’s pretty much how she ended the day, too, minus the alarm.

I had 35 students in one of my classes record every interaction with media they had over the course of two days. The exercise surprised most of them with how reliant — addicted, in the words of several — they are to their phones and to social media. Putting aside the above student’s wake-up routine, it’s worth noting where her first stops of the day are not: No newspaper, no TV for news or otherwise, no CNN website. If it isn’t on her social media, she’s not going to get it.

That’s not uncommon, either. In fact, it would be more common if you add two more stops: “Check Instagram.” And “Check Snapchat. Respond to Snaps.”

That shouldn’t be news to news organizations; it’s been like that for at least five or six years. But it should be chilling to news organizations because it means that all the efforts they’ve made to try to get the millennials — and there haven’t been all that many — have failed.

83206ae67da70662c246b9cca0b92d2da77cae199a14e8d23e102739d5192b2eBefore you read on, you should go to their blogs, which I’m curating daily here. These aren’t slackers.

There are opportunities — they are a fertile audience for news — but news organizations must change their behaviors and their actions.

Other observations from their media diaries:

* They are swamped with media. One student said she logged one-third of her waking hours interacting – reading, listening, watching or posting – with media. (For the record, I exempted school work from this exercise.) But most of them considered their media diets to be high on fat and carbs and low on nutrition. “My diet is not very balanced. It is missing news sources giving me information-based nutrition.” That statement is from a student who reads the Skimm and checks Google News “incessantly.”

And most of it they used for entertainment. “The most common way I read information-based ‘nutritional’ news was either from short posts from NowThisNews on Instagram or from a front-page story in the Daily Tar Heel. The posts take less than a minute to read usually, and the paper articles take at the most five minutes. At the same time, I spent 45 minutes to an hour watching Beyonce and other artists’ videos on YouTube.”

“This exercise made me consider how much time I would have to take in information-based media if I cut out some entertainment media.”

Truth be told, their media diets aren’t nearly as bad as they think they are. Most of them know what’s going on in the world, either through social media, through discussions with friends or from classes. They simply don’t access a great deal of mainstream news media outlets in their course of the day. They often get the news indirectly. But they still get it. (I was a college student once pre-Internet and they know a lot more about what’s going on in the world than most of my classmates did.)


* Much of them are led to news sites by tweets or Facebook posts. “Then, if I’m interested enough, I will read the entire article at its original location.” But the percentage of times that students click through to news articles is low.

“The first thing that stands out is that I did not look at the news at all in these two days. I spend a lot of time on social media, and sometimes I do get some news from that, but I never seek out and look at news. This is definitely a weakness of mine, and I should probably have been kicked out of the j-school for it.”

* They don’t pay for content.¬†For many, the only subscription-based media they use are Netflix, Spotify or Amazon Prime, and they’re often using the passwords of their parents or their girlfriend’s step-father’s brother or some such. (Note to self: add ethics discussion to syllabus.) Many also say they can’t imagine ever paying for news content. “Why pay for something like a newspaper/magazine subscription or bigger texting packages when we can find ways to find or do it all for free on the Internet?”

On paywalls: “I need to be somewhat judicious with my visits to the Times or the Globe, though, as their arcane paywalls only permit non-subscribers to read 10 monthly articles. This is the most overt instance of moneymaking that I encounter in my daily consumption. It is also the most irritating. Paywalls are the devil’s work. Wouldn’t it make more sense to charge a user after they’ve consumed and enjoyed content rather than immediately erecting barriers to entry and assuming readers will reach for their wallets?”

* They are all over the place on digital advertising.

On Twitter: “They are ineffective as I tend to ignore native ads. When I see a post by someone I don’t follow, I just scroll right past it.”

On Facebook’s targeted ads: “I think it’s better to have something related to my interests on my screen than a random ad.” And another: “I notice that Facebook has started showing me ads of travel agencies and offers in London as it knows that I’m traveling there over Spring Break. I actually like these advertisements because they remind me of my upcoming trip.”

* They don’t go to the movies much. Certainly not on the days they monitored, but in discussions, they said they are more likely to go to Netflix or Google-Plus or Amazon than out to the multiplex. And cable. “The only reason my house buys it is because it comes in a package with our Wi-Fi and costs us each $11 a month. If it didn’t come relatively inexpensively with the wi-fi, which is a social necessity, there is no way we would still subscribe to it.”

* They aren’t reading books. I don’t make too much of this, given most of their book reading is school related, which I exempted.

* Like the Boomer Generation, they waste a lot of time. “We now waste away huge chunks of time perusing the Internet because it’s easier to lie on the couch and look at something in your hand than to actually get up and do something.”

We had a good discussion about who is responsible to add news information to balance their diets that are heavy on carbs and sugars. They disagreed over whether it was their responsibility to seek out more whole foods, or whether it was the industry’s responsibility to serve it up.

They appreciated the efforts that advertisers were taking to personalize products and to slyly position ads so that they would, at least, be noticed subconsciously. While many thought the collection of personal data was intrusive, an equal number accept it as the price of being on the grid.

The challenge to news organizations is to be as aggressive and innovative as advertisers and marketers. Personalization. Branding. Positioning. All strategies that news organizations have been trying to figure out.



One thought on “How college students get the news

  1. I get all this, and I understand the nature of the ongoing disruptive change and that yet to come. Now, here comes the “but.”

    BUT, I’d be willing to bet that this segment also consumes a number of things in disproportion to other segments. I am not the person I was in college, nor are my “habits.” Because this cohort consumes more pizza and soda (or beer), should food nutritionists be worried about the future of veggies? Because these folks predominantly drive small cars (or bikes) should we stop making SUVs? Because they tend to have one or more roommates, should we rethink how we build housing? Because many use their phones for flashlights, should we stop making flashlights?

    Just the other day in The Wall Street Journal, there was a story about the housing choice of older millenials (late 20s into early 30s). The thought (and investment bet) had been that this segment would prefer city life and all the stuff of urban living, BUT SURPRISE, they’re buying homes in the ‘burbs! As we mature, so too do our choices, so I’m not ready to accept the sky is falling, or at least at the speed some say it is.

    Now, maybe these millenials in the suburbs are not getting a subscription to the newspaper at their homes, but no media organization should build a growth strategy based on such a young segment of the population. Will these young adults still be on Yik Yak 10 years from now? Pffftt, how about one year? And when they start having kids and caring about schools and safety, or finding a place for date night, will that info be on Snap Chat? Nope.

    Yes, I concur: personalization, branding and positioning are key strategies media companies must improve (or create!) going forward. Really, it was so easy in the past to sell our products and the advertising with them, we didn’teven have to think about all that. So now we do.

    But are the habits of late teens, early 20s the cohort for us to consider? Maybe if you’re ESPN or an interest targeting that cohort. If you’re a local news organization, you do what you do best: build a local news product/products (notice my lack of platform specificity) that offer what no other offers.

    In the meantime, let the college kids have their fun and their groovy hipster lives. Reality comes soon enough, and a whole earlier wave of hipsters found out that Reality Bites.

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