Are “News Hound” Behaviors Changing?

News Hound Behaviors are ChangingMost of the people I know who are eager consumers of news tend to spend far more time on the Internet than they do offline with their nose in the newspaper.

So I was surprised to read the results of a new study published by Gather, Inc., a Boston-based online media company, which found that self-described “news junkies” are more likely to rely on traditional media sources like television, newspapers and radio than online ones.

In fact, the survey, which was fielded in March 2010 and queried the news consumption habits of some 1,450 respondents representing a cross-section of age and income demographics, found that more than half of the “news hounds” cited newspapers as their primary source of news.

By comparison, younger respondents (below age 25) are far more likely to utilize the Internet for reading news (~70% do so).

Another interesting finding in the Gather study – though not terribly surprising – is that younger respondents describe themselves as “interest-based,” meaning that apart from breaking news, they focus only on stories of interest to them. This pick-and-choose “cafeteria-style” approach to news consumption may partially explain the great gaps in knowledge that the “over 40” population segment perceives in the younger generations (those observations being reported with accompanying grunts of displeasure, no doubt).

As for sharing news online, there are distinct differences in the behavior of older versus younger respondents. Two findings are telling:

 More than two-thirds of respondents age 45 and older share news items with other primarily through e-mail communiqués.

 ~55% of respondents under age 45 share news primarily through social networking.

Also, more than 80% of the respondents in Gather’s study revealed that they have personally posted online comments about news stories. This suggests that people have now become more “active” in the news by weighing in with their own opinions, rather than just passively reading the stories. This is an interesting development that may be rendering the 90-9-1 principle moot.

[For those who are unfamiliar with the 90-9-1 rule, it contends that for every 100 people interacting with online content, one creates the content … nine edit, modify or comment on that content … and the remaining 90 passively read/review the content without undertaking any further action. It’s long been a tenet in discussions about online behavior.]

What types of news stories are most likely to generate reader comments? Well, politics and world events are right up there, but local news stories are also a pretty important source for comments:

 Political stories: 28%
 National/international news stories: 27%
 Local news stories: 22%
 Celebrity news: 13%
 Sports stories: 5%
 Business and financial news: 5%

And what about the propensity for news seekers to use search engines to find multiple perspectives on a news story? More than one-third of respondents report that they “click on multiple [search engine] results to get a variety of perspectives,” while less than half of that number click on just the first one or two search result entries.

And why wouldn’t people hunt around more? In today’s world, it’s possible to find all sorts of perspectives and “slants” on a news story, whereas just a few years ago, you’d have to be content with the same AP or UPI wire story that you’d find republished in dozens of papers — often word-for-word.

Rupert Murdoch’s “Paid Content” Gamble

Rupert MurdochMedia mogul Rupert Murdoch’s pronouncement last week that beginning in July 2010, online content for all of his news media properties will be available for a fee – not for free – has surprised many in the industry.

“Quality journalism is not cheap,” Murdoch declared. His announcement comes hard on the heels of his massive media conglomerate News Corporation reporting a ~$3.4 billion loss for the last fiscal year.

While admiring Mr. Murdoch’s brave stance and willingness to get out in front of an issue that has bedeviled the newspaper industry for the past four or five years, one is left wondering if he’s playing the role of Don Quixote rather than Richard the Lionheart in this drama.

For sure, the pay-per-view business model looks great to any publishing company that has seen the advertising-driven business model come under so much stress and strain in recent years. And The Wall Street Journal, one of Murdoch’s properties, has been able to charge a fee for online access in a practice that dates back prior to that publication’s acquisition by News Corporation.

So what will happen in this glorious experiment? Will legions of newshounds flock to the various Murdoch sites – The Wall Street Journal, Times of London, Australian, New York Post – and plunk down pay-per-view dollars or a monthly access fee for the privilege of reading the latest news bits?

Or will people rely on the many other (free) outlets for news, while also receiving and passing along “copy-and-paste” materials over the web — an effortless task that can be completed in mere seconds?

[And good luck trying to use legal means to prevent the dissemination of copyrighted material; the litigation costs could well outstrip any compensation dollars awarded, while being a major distraction inside the company and causing a PR kerfuffle outside.]

That giant sucking sound you hear could be the hordes of cyber-visitors heading on over to CNN, USA Today and other free news sites, whose traffic volume will spike and perhaps even bring in additional advertising revenues off the extra hits. Would these and other free, advertising-driven media properties like to find ways to increase revenues? Sure. But most of them would prefer to be #3 or #4 to take the leap on paid content – not a high-risk first or second.

There will always be some people willing to pay for premium content. But let’s face it; most news isn’t “premium.” It’s a commodity – and its dissemination is helped along by hundreds or thousands of people copying and forwarding articles and and/or links via e-mail, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook … you name it.

Rupert Murdoch has a history of being pretty savvy when it comes to the news business. And certainly he has the power and the resources to undertake this new effort.

But his naiveté may be showing on this one. He is, after all, nearly 80 years old and notoriously online-illiterate himself. And while the saying goes that “knowledge is power” … “power without knowledge” isn’t usually a good recipe for success.

Even John Q. Public doesn’t believe newspapers are going to survive …

It’s not just inside observers who are predicting the demise of the printed newspaper. The “Great American Public” seems to be well clued in to the problems of newspapers also. In fact, a poll released by Rasmussen Reports on May 12, 2009 reports that fully two thirds of adult Americans believe daily papers will disappear within the next ten years.

Even more dramatic, nearly one in five respondents think that it will happen within three years.

When two thirds of all adult Americans predict daily papers will go the way of the dinosaur within the coming decade, that’s big news. No longer is this just a discussion among industry insiders … it’s crept into the popular culture. That’s yet another big danger signal for the papers.

All of this is underscored by Rasmussen’s findings that a majority of Americans (56%) purchase a paper once per week or less — and 37% rarely or never buy a print version of their local paper.

In a possibly related development, Rasmussen’s surveys report that the credibility of newspapers and other media has declined in the public’s eyes. For example, only about one in four respondents has a favorable opinion of the New York Times. That may be a new low for a paper that likes to think of itself as America’s #1 print news source.

The most recent Newspaper Association of America’s financial figures are showing that newspapers have lost a whopping $18 billion over the past three years in their print operations. And while many papers have been counting on their online operations to counterbalance all of this red ink, total Internet revenues over the same period amounted to ~$9 billion — not nearly enough to erase the losses on the print side.

Of course, as this is 2009, the story would not be complete without government officials coming to the rescue, offering their share of interesting proposals. But how does the public feel about these efforts by politicians to save the newspapers? Nearly 40% favor federal government subsidies to keep newspapers in business … but slightly more than half feel it’s better simply to let them go out of business.

It will be interesting to see what the federal and state legislatures actually end up doing — whether it be turning newspaper companies into not-for-profit entities as Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland has suggested … or providing special business tax breaks for the industry as has been proposed by Washington’s governor Christine Gregoire.

Whatever is attempted, my prediction is that it won’t have nearly the positive effect its proponents hope for. The sweep of change in the communications arena is simply too broad and deep for that.