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. Read more