Young Online Newspaper Audience Dropping; Older Consumers Adopting Social Media

Online newspaper consumption has dropped significantly among 18- to 24-year-olds, who are leading changes in media consumption. Meanwhile, use of digital media overall has increased, led by older consumers, who accounted for the largest percentage increases in the use of social media.

These are some of the findings of a new survey by IBM’s Media and Entertainment group, part of the company’s Institute for Business Value. The findings are to be released in coming weeks in presentations and a white paper.

The implications are important for those in the news business and illustrate that newspapers may have less time than they were counting on to figure out how to succeed online.

Young people, from 18- to 24-year-olds, were “the only segment in which I saw erosion year over year for any digital media category, specifically for online newspapers,” from roughly 64 percent in 2008 who said they had viewed a newspaper online within the last year, to 54 percent in 2009, said Karen Feldman, global lead for the media and entertainment group and one of the survey’s lead authors.

But offsetting that drop among young people was a nearly equal increase in online newspaper consumption among people older than 55. That drove a moderate increase in overall consumption of online newspapers, from 54 percent to 58 percent.

IBM surveyed 3,327 people internationally, 900 of them in the United States, in a random sample constructed to match the digital media consuming population.

For years, many in the media industry have operated on the understanding that younger generations are changing their habits while an older “embedded base” of consumers sticks with them, providing the eyeballs and cash flow to cushion the blow and help the transition to digital media. The IBM media study, the third annual one (last year’s was “Beyond Advertising“) calls that thinking into question.

“We and everyone else has talked about the notion of a digital divide for years now,” Feldman said. “What this is suggesting is, ‘Look out,’ it’s not as black and white as that. You can’t just keep the status quo for your traditional media, because you’re going to see a blending” that incorporates digital media with the traditional.

Feldman and I reviewed the findings in her Manhattan office and over the phone last week. She had invited me to be one of the industry analysts that her group talks to as they prepare the presentation and white paper, which is to address “value shifts in the digital era.”

The study, not surprisingly, finds consumers moving to what IBM calls “connected experiences,” using various Internet-enabled devices to consume, engage with and create media, whether news and information, personal messages, or produced entertainment.

One finding that may be heartening for news organizations is that a significant number of people, especially older ones, are willing to pay for their media. Of the different payment systems for news, 25 percent said they would prefer subscriptions over piecemeal options like paying per article.

But that is only for the minority who say they are willing to pay in the first place. For the majority, news organizations will have to find other ways of earning money to produce the news, whether through creative forms of advertising, custom media, events, e-reader deals, selling technologies like smartphone apps, or — I would advocate — a mix of these and other revenue streams.

Newspapers and other news organizations should study the behaviors of their younger consumers to see how to reach the older ones in the coming months and years.

To reach 18- to 24-year-olds, it may be necessary to use social media like Facebook that news organizations don’t control, but where 80 percent of them say they regularly interact. (In an earlier piece for Poynter, I discussed Facebook strategies for news organizations.) As older people increasingly use social media, I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar behavior there, as well.

It seems we have moved into an era in which the younger, earlier adopters not only lead the trends in media consumption, but they are also followed by the older generations. News organizations should be prepared for that trend to accelerate as everyone becomes more comfortable with digital media and devices.

CORRECTION: This post originally stated that overall consumption of newspapers online has dropped, which is incorrect. Consumption among 18- to 24-year-olds dropped, but the overall consumption rose. This post also originally described the drop in consumption as 10 percent, but it was 10 percentage points. These errors have been corrected and the post has been revised.

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