Age Differences For Alternate Media Use
How Different Age Groups Use and Want Their News
by Howard D. Gaddy
Knight Fellow in Community Journalism, University of Alabama
[Download the research report]
When I was a general assignment reporter for a small daily in Jasper, Ala., the entire newsroom staff was called into the managing editor’s office to get our legs striped about wasting time on Facebook. Had someone told me this extremely effective time-waster would be a major news tool in the next few years, I would have smiled politely and started slowly stepping away.
Shortly after I left the newspaper, however, that’s exactly what happened. The assistant managing editor, James Phillips, got a promotion, and he started using the site as a way to provide breaking news to readers.
Within a year the small newspaper gained 2,699 Facebook followers, compared to the 4,071 Facebook followers of al.com, the online home for Alabama’s three largest newspapers.
Even more surprising, Phillips said the newspaper’s average reader is much older when compared to other news publications. Despite what many – even I – assumed about this technology, it turned out to be incredibly popular among middle-aged adults and a huge success for Jasper’s Daily Mountain Eagle.
“Those people between age 30 and 40 seem to have really bought into Facebook,” Phillips said. “I thought it was really interesting how quickly they jumped on to our page.”
Phillips’ Facebook success appears to be more than a happenstance in Jasper. A thousand Alabama readers surveyed in spring 2010 showed that Facebook has become a popular news outlet for many newspaper readers age 30 to 49. In fact, this age group uses it almost as much as those age 19 to 29.
The Knight Fellows in Community Journalism program at the University of Alabama recently completed this survey of Alabama newspaper readers. It covered how Alabama readers get and how they would like to get their news. This article concerns news use and preferences across age groups, just one of the topics covered by the research project.
Overall, the Knight Fellows found that Alabama newspapers, particularly community newspapers, have a plethora of opportunities to reach readers both young and old, and in many cases those opportunities are completely untapped. The Knight Fellows also found that, despite many national findings to the contrary, many young Alabama readers still use the print newspaper. Like national findings, however, young and middle-aged readers are seeking news through social networking and mobile devices. And even more interesting, there is ad revenue to be made from these trends.
For example, The Anniston Star has a website called BamaMoms specifically geared toward mothers. The site serves as a social networking tool for moms in the Anniston area. The users generate the vast majority of the content. However, the Star is able to charge for advertising. And many companies will pay handsomely (handsomely as defined in the online ad realm) for space because it reaches a specific demographic.
“It’s never going to be a huge money-maker, but a lot of projects like that can make a pretty nice chunk of money,” said Justin Thurman, multimedia director for the Star.
There are also many instances where Alabama readers, regardless of age, have expressed interest in online news content such as in-depth local news. The Knight Fellows hope the information from our report will help to serve as a map for Alabama newspapers to navigate through the many options now available to reach their readers.
Background on the Project
The Knight Fellows in Community Journalism program is a partnership between the University of Alabama, The Anniston Star and the Knight Foundation. It is a one-year master’s program in community journalism. Every year, each of the Knight Fellows produces some kind of academic research project. This year was the first for the fellows to collaborate under one umbrella project.
The project was overseen by Dr. Jennifer Greer, chair of journalism at the University of Alabama and a leading news researcher, and Carol Nunnelley, former managing editor for the Birmingham News and a regent of the Associated Press Managing Editors.
In an online survey, the Fellows looked at “alternative news delivery” among Alabama newspapers, which is basically news via the internet, social networking sites and mobile devices.
Several newspapers affiliated with the Alabama Press Association provided space on their websites for the survey. The Fellows also promoted the survey on Facebook and Twitter, getting what is called a snowball sample by asking Facebook friends or Twitter followers to pass the survey along. All the respondents were volunteer and reached online, likely making the sample more inclined to technology than the average Alabama reader.
Respondents were asked how and how often they accessed their local newspaper in any format. For example, respondents rated how often they got news from the following formats: print, website, RSS feeds, e-mail alerts, Facebook and Twitter. They also rated the importance of the following news content in a non-print setting: local news updates, interactive maps, traffic updates, weather updates, blogs, local sports scores, in-depth stories, timely offers from local businesses and classified ads. Respondents were also asked demographic questions.
A separate part of the project involved an analysis of what newspapers offer in terms of alternative news delivery, things like RSS feeds and e-mail alerts as well as Facebook and Twitter pages. The Fellows found that several Alabama newspapers didn’t have websites, let alone Twitter followers.
What Previous Researchers Found
Though few people have studied Alabama newspaper readers, there have been a number of reports and studies regarding nationwide trends in news use. Much of the information comes from the Pew Research Center, which publishes a biennial report on national news audiences. The center’s 2008 report gives on overall baseline of the major trends happening among news consumers. In this report, news audiences were divided into four categories: traditionalists, net newsers, integrators and the disengaged.
Traditionalists prefer the standard print methods of getting news information, and this group generally consists of older individuals. Net Newsers are consumers who prefer alternative means of news delivery like the internet and mobile devices, and they generally consist of younger to middle age groups. Integrators utilize both traditional and alternative media and are normally of a middle-aged demographic The disengaged are people who don’t care for news in any form, and they are overwhelmingly a younger demographic.
In general, past research, like the Pew Center’s reports on age differences among news audiences, found that older people follow the news more closely, but younger people are more likely to seek the news in various methods. However, the age group most likely to utilize alternative media is not the younger audiences, but the middle-aged audiences. This is understandable given the large amount of disengaged consumers who fall into the younger demographics. The trend of older audiences gravitating toward more traditional news formats is also understandable given prior research. For example, a group of British researchers conducted in-depth interviews with several retired couples regarding their use of the internet and found that many older people view activities on the computer as passive and lacking culture (e.g. video games or downloading music).
What the Knight Fellows Found
One of the first questions asked of Alabama respondents was what general method of news consumption they preferred: print, website or alternative (mobile device, Facebook or Twitter). The results, in some cases, indicated stark differences between national and Alabama newspaper readers when looking at use and preferences across age.
Though the Fellows saw the same trend of older people gravitating toward print, the younger demographics displayed a much higher inclination to print when compared to national statistics. Thirty-nine percent of the younger Alabama readers preferred the print edition of their local newspaper. This is compared to the 24 percent of younger readers preferring print in the Pew Center’s 2008 report. Put simply, younger Alabama readers prefer the print newspaper at a much higher rate than younger readers nationwide. The preferences for the newspaper website were in line with national research, with a majority of those ages 30 to 49 preferring the online edition of their local paper.
Interestingly though, the younger and older readers did not differ greatly in their preference for the online edition. Despite national figures, younger and older Alabama readers both preferred online news at a high rate. As far as alternative media preferences, our findings also matched national research that found younger readers to be the most likely to prefer news through formats such as Twitter and mobile devices.
Probably the most interesting finding was that the younger readers were almost split between a preference for the online and print editions of the newspaper, and this is coming from a sample reached solely by online means. This indicates that Alabama newspapers that assume younger people in their market are apathetic to their print edition could be mistaken.
Figures highlighted in yellow indicate the demographic that preferred this format the most.
The survey went on to cover the frequency of use for print and online as well as several subcategories for alternative media. Rather than asking the format readers preferred, these questions covered what formats readers actually used and how often they used them. Not surprisingly, the print edition was most frequently used by older Alabama readers, and the online edition was most frequently used by the middle age group.
In regards to e-mail alerts, the Knight Fellows’ study found Alabama readers to be disinterested in this format across age groups and no significant difference emerged among those groups. This is counter to the Pew Center’s 2008 report that found news via e-mail to be a popular trend among both young and older audiences. The Pew Center found the same for RSS feeds while the Fellows found it most frequently used by middle-aged Alabama readers.
For the Knight Fellows’ research, frequency of mobile device use was highest among the younger Alabama readers. Again, this is different from the Pew Center’s 2008 report that found the middle-aged consumers to be the most frequent users of mobile devices. However, a Swedish study done on news received from mobile devices found the same trend toward younger users in 2005. The Fellows’ study found Twitter to be utilized for news most frequently by younger readers (the Pew Center did not cover Twitter or Facebook specifically). Facebook was also used most frequently by the younger age group. However, they were closely followed by the middle-age group.
How Often Age Groups Use Various Forms of News Delivery
In regard to practical uses for Alabama newspaper decision-makers, this data indicates a wealth of opportunities to target specific reader categories. If a community newspaper is looking to increase their younger readership, that paper could designate a “Twitter Guy” to promote their breaking news and upcoming print stories. A community newspaper hoping to increase middle-aged readers could start an RSS feed.
The Anniston Star uses a breaking news section of their website that is updated by staff members via Twitter.
“Even though our content management site is easy, doing it through Twitter is easier,” said Justin Thurman, multimedia director for the Star.
Thurman said, though the newspaper doesn’t have market data regarding age, the paper did see an increase in page views after its new breaking news feature. Thurman said the breaking news blog also lets the news staff reach out to Facebook and Twitter followers at the same time.
Even more useful to Alabama newspapers would be what readers would like to see in the future in online, mobile and social media formats, a matter the survey also covered. Respondents were asked to rate how important the following content would be to them: breaking local news, interactive maps, traffic updates, local sports scores, weather updates, blogs, in-depth news, timely offers from local businesses and classified ads. Among all of these formats age was a significant indicator of preference, and for several it was the primary indicator.
Middle-age groups indicated they wanted to see more local stories. Younger readers wanted most to see more interactive maps as well as traffic and sports updates. Blogs were also most popular among younger readers. Older Alabama readers had little interest in blogs, which is contrary to the Pew Center’s national report that found young and old readers to be equally likely to seek news in this format.
Weather updates were important to all readers regardless of age. The Fellows’ survey also found no age group had a significant preference for classified ads.
Of particular interest to Alabama newspapers should be the survey’s findings regarding in-depth local news. A common belief about online stories is that shorter is better. However, the Knight Fellows found that each age group expressed an interest in seeing in-depth local stories online; the 30-to-49 age group wanted it the most.
Another interesting finding for Alabama newspapers should be the “timely offers from local businesses” category (otherwise known as advertisements). Readers age 19 to 29 expressed the most interest in this category. This finding offers a direct financial opportunity for Alabama newspapers with a demographic that is traditionally hard to reach. Take for example the Shelby County Reporter’s “What’s for Lunch” e-mail alerts. This project is simply a daily e-mail newsletter sent just before lunchtime offering deals from local restaurants. Initially, this project was regarded as a nice feature to offer to readers. However, it quickly turned into a money-maker. This weekly paper is able to generate significant income from a daily e-mail blast.
What’s Happening Nationwide
Anyone doubting the importance of alternative news delivery should take a close look at major news organizations’ websites. Take for example PBS, which has more than 32,000 Facebook followers. In addition, PBS.org has a website called Engage. At this site, viewers can upload their own photos, comment on stories and even chat with reporters. Because of these and several other projects of public, digital journalism PBS.org receives 877,000 daily visitors and more than 20 million unique visitors, according to the American Journalism Review.
Also, The New York Times created a Facebook profile the very day it was available to them and now the company boasts 180,000 followers.
“The Times’ social media strategies have a thoroughness that may be likened to saturation bombing in cyberspace,” wrote Arielle Emmett in an American Journalism Review article. “Not only does the Times use Facebook, it also has numerous RSS feeds and about 20 feeds via Twitter, the mobile instant messaging/texting utility the Times uses to link columnists and readers.”
Understandably, most Alabama newspapers will never have near the resources PBS put into its site, Engage. But the majority of the formats Fellows survey respondents use and want cost either very little or nothing at all. A Facebook page is free, and a reporter’s blog costs a slice of the time you are paying him for already. Yet many smaller newspapers have not tried these methods. In addition to the boosted readership and website visits, these methods can also help newspapers better serve their readers.
Though it started as a way for his paper to offer breaking news, Phillips said the Facebook page has been an invaluable resource for news tips and feedback from readers.
“If community newspapers are not using this, they’re missing out,” he said. “When you’re a small paper, you can’t do a lot of things because of money. Facebook has often served as a readership study for us, and it’s also made us more community-oriented. It’s been priceless for us.”
This article relies on original research undertaken by the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism in spring 2010: a content analysis of offerings of Alabama newspapers and an online survey of readers. Other sources for this article include:
I. Buse, C. (2009). When you retire, does everything become leisure? Information and communication technology use and the work/leisure boundary in retirement.New Media & Society,11(7), 1143-1161.
Emmet, A. (2009) Networking News. American Journalism Review. Retrieved from http://www.ajr.org/article.asp?id=4646
Gaddy, D. (2010) Interview with Daily Mountain Eagle Managing Editor James Phillips. April 10.
Gaddy, D. (2010) Interview with Anniston Star Multimedia Director Justin Thurman. June 10.
Pew Research Center, Internet and American Life Project. (2009) The Mobile Difference: Wireless Connectivity Has Drawn Many Users More Deeply Into Digital Life. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2009/The_Mobile_Difference.pdf
Pew Research Center, Biennial News Consumption Survey (2008). Audience Segments in a Changing News Environment: Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources. Retrieved from http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/444.pdf
Pew Research Center, Biennial News Consumption Survey (2006). Maturing Internet News Audience – Broader Than Deep: Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership. Retrieved from http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/282.pdf
Westlund, Oscar. 2008. “From Mobile Phone to Mobile Device: News Consumption on the Go.” Canadian Journal of Communication 33(3), 443-463.
The University of Alabama’s one-year Master’s Program in Community Journalism, or ComJ, encourages students to think critically about the role news plays in community and to explore new ways to serve communities through the evolving practices of journalism.
Read more about the ComJ program.