Young Americans Abandon Old Media (And That's a Good Thing)


News vending boxes
Patxi Izkue

If you're of the opinion that too many players in legacy media operations tend to give Democrats a pass on their foibles while exaggerating the (very real) excesses of Republicans, take heart! If you believe the likes of NBC News and the New York Times often behave like PR outfits for outrageously intrusive government, there's good news. Those old media outfits are about as relevant as wax tablets to younger Americans.

Research by Pew finds that younger and middle-aged audiences pay less attention to news than their predecessors. When they do tune in, it's increasingly to new media operations that potentially represent a greater diversity of opinion than you'll find in established newspapers and on the network news.

At Poynter, the Pew Research Center's Andy Kohut writes:

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.

In fact, Millennials put just over half as much time into news consumption in 2012 as "Silent" 67-84 year-olds: 46 minutes vs. 84 minutes. Boomers spent 77 minutes per day and Gen Xers 66 minutes. Pew finds that older Americans enjoy following the news more than young Americans—it has something of a hobby quality for them that is fading with successive generations. That means that younger Americans aren't necessarily less well-informed than their elders; they may be getting what they need and then turning to other activities.

Millennials' news sources
Pew Research Center

Reinforcing that possibility is the emphasis Millennials and Gen Xers place on the Internet as a news source. It's easy to do a targeted news search and get what you want rather than wait for television or radio to mope around to topics that interest you, or wade through a newspaper for relevant articles.

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…

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.

In addition, "a third of Millennials and 20 percent of Xers saying they regularly see news or news headlines on social-networking sites." Services like Twitter and Facebook act as conduits to information for younger Americans, and means for them to share news that interests them.

Even Boomers are abandoning newspapers, leaving only Silents as devotees of the dead-tree press.

There are a couple of potential upsides to these generational differences. One, is the slow and certain decline of old-line media windbags and their "gatekeeper" outlets into irrelevance. That's a welcome development in itself. The other is the proliferation of new media outlets representing different perspectives, and their availability to young news-seekers. The Internet allows users to bypass aging newspapers and establishment news broadcasts in favor of upstart operations, overseas media, and niche outfits that find their voices amplified by the Internet.

None of this means that younger Americas are destined to break loose of the received wisdom of David Brooks. But they're making a good start on finding information elsewhere.