Pew surveys of audience habits suggest perilous future for news

News organizations have been confronting the problem of a shrinking audience for more than a decade, but trends strongly suggest that these difficulties may only worsen over time. Today’s younger and middle-aged audience seems unlikely to ever match the avid news interest of the generations they will replace, even as they enthusiastically transition to the Internet as their principal source of news.

Pew Research longitudinal surveys find that Gen Xers (33-47 years old) and Millennials (18-31 years old), who spent less time than older people following the news at the outset of their adulthood, have so far shown little indication that that they will become heavier news consumers as they age.

Notably, a 2012 Pew Research national poll found members of the Silent generation (67-84 years old) spending 84 minutes watching, reading or listening to the news the day before the survey interview. Boomers (48-66 years old), did not lag far behind (77 minutes), but Xers and Millennials spent much less time: 66 minutes and 46 minutes, respectively.

The truly troubling trend for the media is that Pew Research surveys give little indication that news consumption increases among members of the younger age groups as they get older. For example, in 2004 Xers reported following the news about as often as they did in 2012 (63 minutes versus 66 minutes). The eight-year trend for Millennials was equally flat (43 minutes versus 46 minutes).

Younger generations just don’t enjoy following news

The relatively modest levels of news consumption among the younger generations may be the result of any number of factors – more activities that compete with following the news, fewer compelling major historical events during childhood and adolescence, and so forth. But a critical factor that emerges from the surveys is that older people simply enjoy the news more than the young do. The Pew Research Center’s latest surveys find 58 percent of Silents and Boomers reporting they enjoy following the news a lot, compared to 45% of Xers and just 29 percent of Millennials. This generational difference has been consistently apparent in the surveys over the years.

The audience for newspapers among younger Americans has been modest from the outset of their adulthood, and has not increased as these people have matured. In fact, as they have gotten older Xers and Millennials have become even less inclined to read newspapers.

While much has been made about the potential appeal, especially to younger audiences, of reading newspapers on digital devices such as iPhones, iPads and Kindles, such readership is modest (8 percent and 6 percent respectively) among both Millennials and Xers, and has done little to offset declines in newspaper readership among these groups in recent years.

Television news viewership is markedly lower among younger age groups compared to older people, with no sign of it increasing as Xers and Millennials age. However, unlike newspapers, there is little indication that this TV news viewership declines with age.

In sharp contrast, Xers and Millennials have increasingly turned to the Internet for news as they have gotten older. Among Xers the Internet news audience jumped from 29 percent to 49 percent between 2004 and 2012. It now matches turning to TV for news, which also declined (by 20 percentage points over this period). Similar patterns are apparent among Millennials, but they are more extreme. More of those born between 1982 and 1995 (43 percent) now turn to the Internet for news than to TV (35 percent).

Radio is the traditional news source that has held its own the best among the younger cohorts as they have aged. Fully 38 percent of Xers say they got news from radio “yesterday” and 27 percent of Millennials said the same. Both measures are little changed since the middle of the last decade.

Older Americans’ habits show little change

The percentage of Silents and Boomers who turn to TV for news has not declined since the mid 1990s, when we first began these surveys. In fact, as Boomers have aged a growing percentage have turned to TV for news. Strikingly, many fewer Silents and Boomers get news from radio than they did in the mid-1990s.

The surveys indicate much more change with respect to newspaper readership. The percentage of Boomers who “read a paper yesterday” is much lower today than it was in the mid-1990s – 49 percent in 1996 versus 36 percent in 2012. Digital newspapers are read by minuscule numbers of Silents (3 percent) and Boomers (6 percent). But Silents stand out as heavy consumers of newspapers — every bit as much as they were in the mid-1990s.

Over the years, only modest numbers of Boomers and Silents have adopted the Internet as a source of news — 23 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

For all the potential bad news for the traditional news media, social media looms as a potential booster of news consumption among the younger generation, albeit a modest one so far. Pew Research’s 2012 survey found a third of Millennials and 20 percent of Xers saying they regularly see news or news headlines on social-networking sites. However, only about 35 percent of those who get news from social network sites say they follow up and seek out full news stories.

News organizations clearly and correctly see digital readership as vital to their future. But again, this data suggests that expectations have to be modest with respect to regaining the huge audience the media once enjoyed. The raw material — high levels of news engagement among the younger generations — just has not been there, at least for now.

Andrew Kohut is the Founding Director of the Pew Research Center, in Washington, D.C.

Correction: A paragraph about news consumption increasing among members of  younger age groups as they get older has been updated to reflect more accurate figures.

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  • Sue Markgraf

    Has “talk news” shot us in the foot when hard news breaks?

  • Angele

    After reading this article, I wrote this letter to “news” http://wiresinabox.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/dear-news-please-consider-rebranding-yourself/

  • Rumionemore

    It appears the public really gets it that they are helping fund the BBC, and their expectations are higher for news coverage. In the U.S., millions of people believe The Government exists as this body that hovers somewhere over the country and disperses funding. The reality of the taxpayers as The Government is quickly diminishing. “Let The Government take care of those needs …”

  • Rumionemore

    Not a surprise.
    Many news organizations have earned the mistrust and indifference of Americans because they devote too much energy to cultivating and polishing sources than doing the job of reporting the actual news. This makes it more awkward and difficult for them to challenge a Clinton, Obama or a David Petraeus, whom they helped craft into a hero. Al Jazeera America gives me hope. It does not kick off every news update with “Obama said …,” which is done not only by the so-called mainstreamers but also by Fox News. The former enjoy praising and advocating for Obama, while Fox and other conservatives enjoy bashing him. Neither approach inspires credibility AJAM views American politics and politicians as among sources but not the starting point for genuine news. Their feature programs are dynamic and avoid the cloying political correctness of The NY Times, ABC news, Public Broadcasting, and so on.

  • MichaelMolligan

    What constitutes Internet news? For instance, the same folks who publish the Tampa Bay Times also publish news on TampaBay.com. Is TampaBay.com considered a newspaper or Internet news?

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, John. Good catch. We’ve updated the piece to reflect the correct numbers.

    ~Mallary Tenore

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Joshua. Good catch. We’ve updated the piece to reflect the correct numbers.

    ~Mallary

  • kentford

    To the young and recently young, things that are more important than news: Themselves, their friends, their enemies, their activities, their children, their children’s activities, their families, their cars, their video games, their after-school activities, their studies, their cars, their part-time jobs, their full-time jobs, movies, TV shows, themselves, their friends, hobbies. Your everyday ordinary news gets little attention because so many things are more important to the young and recently young. The “news” isn’t about that stuff. It has ever been so and always will be so.

  • AndrewSpearin
  • Bryan M.

    Could you provide a link to the original report, please? Thanks.

  • monkeygohappykids

    good, very good, that right….

    http://monkeygohappychildren.blogspot.com

  • http://www.provergent.com/ ProVergent Media Strategies

    Your non-traditional news sources miss one thing. Consistent credibility. So your stating the legacies need to lower the bar?

  • Brian Butterworth

    Very interesting to compare with the recent Ofcom (UK) detailed report:

    http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/tv-research/news/News_Report_2013_slides.pdf

    The BBC, with it’s structured funding and impartiality requirements has been retained by the UK population as a “well respected” backstop.

  • punktoad

    Its not surprising that new generations are not interested in news that is mostly sound bytes and a lemming mentality with hardly any critical thought. The Daily Show and Colbert Report actually compare and contrast with original thoughts.

  • http://www.boomerradioshow.com Terri Benincasa

    Actually, many Millennials get their news from…the Daily Show and the Colbert Report – what works here is they get not just trending issues but the irony of hypocritical positions on those issues; a bit of additional critical thinking thrown in with each chuckle. Not a bad proposition.

  • John Hancock

    “The truly troubling trend for the media is that Pew Research surveys give little indication that news consumption increases among members of the younger age groups as they get older. ***** For example, in 2004 Xers reported following the news about as often as they did in 2012 (75 minutes versus 77 minutes). The eight-year trend for Millennials was equally flat (63 minutes versus 66 minutes).”

    Appears he pulled the numbers from the wrong columns in the chart above, grabbing the numbers for Boomers and Xers and listing them in the above paragraph as Xers and Millennials.

  • Joshua Gillin

    “Notably, a 2012 Pew Research national poll found members of the Silent generation (67-84 years old) spending 84 minutes watching, reading or listening to the news the day before the survey interview. Boomers (48-66 years old), did not lag far behind (77 minutes), ***** but Xers and Millennials spent much less time: 66 minutes and 46 minutes, respectively. *****

    “The truly troubling trend for the media is that Pew Research surveys give little indication that news consumption increases among members of the younger age groups as they get older. ***** For example, in 2004 Xers reported following the news about as often as they did in 2012 (75 minutes versus 77 minutes). The eight-year trend for Millennials was equally flat (63 minutes versus 66 minutes).” ******

    The numbers in the second paragraph don’t correspond with the first. If I’m reading this correctly, Xers should be 66 minutes in 2012 and 75 minutes in 2004, and Millenials are 46 minutes in 2012 and 63 minutes in 2004. Is that right? Or am I reading it wrong?

  • AndrewSpearin

    Younger generations certainly are interested in news. With the Internet, we are able to define our own ‘news’ through social networks and products such as Instapaper that do not necessarily fit in the traditional “News” sources as a whole. If legacy organizations want to draw younger audiences, they must adapt their content publishing strategy and products according to the interactive habits of younger generations.