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August 19 2010

15:00

The kids are alright, part 2: What news organizations can do to attract, and keep, young consumers

[Christopher Sopher is a senior at the University of North Carolina, where he is a Morehead-Cain Scholar and a Truman Scholar. He has been a multimedia editor of the Daily Tar Heel and has worked for the Knight Foundation. His studies have focused on young people's consumption of news and participation in civic lifewhich have resulted in both a formal report and an ongoing blog, Younger Thinking.

We asked Chris to adapt some of his most relevant findings for the Lab, which he kindly agreed to do. We posted Part 1 yesterday; below is Part 2. Ed.]

Now that I have exhorted all of you to care about young people and their relationship with the news media, it’s worth examining a few of the most pertinent ideas about getting more of my peers engaged: the gap between young people’s reported interested in issues and their interest in news, the need for tools to help organize the information flow, and the crucial role of news in schools and news literacy.

A gap between interest and news consumption

The data seem to suggest that young people are simultaneously interested and uninterested in the world around them. For example, a 2007 Pew survey [pdf] found that 85 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds reported being interested in “keeping up with national affairs” — a significant increase from 1999. Yet in a 2008 study [pdf], just 33 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds (and 47 percent of people aged 25 to 34) said they enjoyed keeping up with news “a lot.” Young people also tend to score lower on surveys of political knowledge — all of which suggests that their information habits are not matching their reported interests.

There are a few compelling explanations for this apparent contradiction (beyond people’s general desire to provide socially agreeable responses). The first is that many young people may not see a consistent connection between regularly “getting the news” and staying informed about the issues that interest them. If we accept that most young people get their news at random intervals (and the overwhelming body of evidence suggests that this is the case), it’s easy to see how reading a particular day’s New York Times story about health care reform, for example, might be rather confusing if you haven’t been following the coverage regularly.

Many young people also report feelings of monotony with day-to-day issue coverage and a distaste for the process focus of most politics coverage. Some share the sentiments (about which Gina Chen has written here at the Lab) of the now-famous, if anonymous, college student who said, “If the news is that important, it will find me.” The cumulative effect of these trends is that young people go elsewhere to “keep up”: to Wikipedia articles, to friends and family, to individual pieces of particularly helpful content shared through social networks.

The “too much information” problem

Several studies have highlighted the fact that many young people feel overwhelmed by the deluge of information presented on news sites. (My two favorite pieces on this are both from the Media Management Center, found here and here here [pdf].)

This sentiment is understandable: On one day I counted, the New York Times’ homepage offered 28 stories across four columns above the scroll cutoff and another 95 below it — for a total of 123 stories, along with 66 navigation links on the lefthand bar. CNN.com also had 28 stories on top and 127 total, along with 15 navigation links. Imagine a newspaper with that many choices.

The point is that news sites need to be designed to help users manage and restrict the wealth of information, rather than presenting them with all of it at once. People can and are doing the work of “curation” on their own, of course, through iGoogle, Twitter, RSS, and social networks both online and off — but those efforts leave behind the vast majority of news outlets. Better design allows news organizations to include the kind of context and background and explanation — not to mention personalization features — that younger audiences find helpful. That idea isn’t new, but its importance for young people cannot be overstated.

Schools, news, and news literacy

News organizations need to learn from soda and snack producers and systematically infiltrate schools across the country with their products. There’s strong evidence that news-based, experiential, and interactive course design [pdf] — as well as the use of news in classrooms and the presence of strong student-produced publications — can both increase the likelihood that students will continue to seek news regularly in the future.

Many teachers are already using news [pdf] in their classrooms, but face the pressures of standardization and an apparent lack of support from administrations. A 2007 Carnegie-Knight Task Force study [pdf] also found that most teachers who do use news content in their curricula direct their students to online national outlets (such as CNN or NYTimes.com) rather than local sites, which suggests that local news organizations need to focus on building a web-based presence in schools. The Times Learning Network is an excellent model.

And when news media finally fill school halls like so much Pepsi (or, now, fruit juice), young people themselves will also need help to navigate content and become savvy consumers, which is where news literacy programs become important. The Lab’s own Megan Garber has explained their value eloquently in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review: “The bottom line: news organizations need to make a point of seeking out young people — and of explaining to them what they do and, perhaps even more importantly, why they do it. News literacy offers news organizations the opportunity to essentially re-brand themselves.” The News Literacy Project, started by a Pulitzer-winning former Los Angeles Times reporter, is a leading example.

The point of these ideas is that there are significant but entirely surmountable obstacles to getting more young people engaged with news media — a goal with nearly universal benefits that has received far too little attention from news organizations.

I’ll conclude with a quote from NYU professor Jay Rosen, buried inside the 2005 book Tuned Out: “Student’s don’t grow up with the religion of journalism, they don’t imbibe it in the same way that students used to. Some do, but a lot don’t.” Changing that is the difficult but urgent challenge. I don’t want to be that guy who says “_____ will save journalism,” so I’ll just say this: It’s really, really, really important.

And I should probably mention that there are hundreds of recent journalism school graduates who would be more than willing to help.

Image by Paul Mayne, used under a Creative Commons license.

March 23 2010

16:00

Poynter’s hiring. What will their writer/curator be up to?

For the past few days, a job posting has been making its way around the web: the Poynter Institute, it announces, is looking to hire a writer/curator for its Sense-Making Project. Which is a job title that — out of context, anyway — doesn’t itself seem to make much sense (A what for the what?). But it’s also one that’s intriguing. Writing? Curating? Sense-making? Can’t argue with that.

I asked Kelly McBride, Poynter’s Ethics Group Leader and lead faculty for the program, about the project and its new position. The Sense-Making Project itself, she told me, is a pilot effort funded by Ford and focused on the intersection between journalism and citizen engagement — and closely related to news literacy, the movement that aims to educate citizens to be savvy consumers of news. “We started with the central question of how citizens will make sense of the universe,” McBride says. And the curator position is in part predicated on one clear answer to that question: “They’re going to need some help.”

One of the project’s aims, McBride says, is to cater to the expanding group Poynter refers to as “the fifth estate”: the broad network of people, journalists both professional and non-, who are now participating in the newsgathering process. The project wants to “create a place where people who are motivated to develop new skills about consuming information can go to do that, to be in conversation and to share their ideas,” she says. And the person who takes on the writer/curator job will guide and, yes, curate that conversation.

In some ways, the position is one that requires the skills of (pardon a slight oxymoron) the classic blogger: “gathering and writing and reassembling and helping us look through all of this information that’s out there, putting a magnifying glass on certain parts of the virtual world and saying, ‘Here’s something to look at.’” But the new role will combine curation with a slightly more academic approach: one that considers the contextual aspects of information. The writer/curator will be taking, if all goes according to plan, an archaeological — and in some senses anthropological — approach to news and the social capital it engenders: a kind of Putnam-meets-Wasik-meets-Foucault-style sensibility toward social knowledge. “The whole idea of the project is, ‘What if you had someone whose only job it was, every day, to be looking at information?” McBride says. “And this person gets the new world and the old world, and isn’t writing to an audience of professional journalists, and is writing to Joe Citizen, saying, ‘Hey, this is kind of interesting.’”

It’s meme-tracking, essentially — tracing the movement of ideas though our social spaces — except with information, rather than notions, as the core proposition. “If you think about what PolitiFact does for political facts,” McBride says, “we’re thinking similar to that, only for the rest of the universe.”

It’s an intriguing idea — and one that suggests a subtle shift in the atomic structure of journalism itself: from the article as the core unit of news, and even from the blog post as that unit, to something more discrete and, yet, tantalizingly ephemeral: the fact itself, the assertion itself, the piece of information itself. Propositions that are solid and fluid at the same time. “What we’ve found,” McBride says, “is that when you start taking a single piece of information, you can actually look at the history — where it came from, who linked to what, who transformed it, and how it got to you. And then you can look at how it went out from there.” The analysis might require “diagnosing language,” she says, or “asking about the motivation of the person who delivered the information.” It also might require “asking about the setting in which the information was delivered, because things on Facebook are different from things on Twitter.”

Either way, the analysis will focus on a goal that’s quickly gaining traction in journalism: the provision of context as a means of adding value to information. With the project and its expansion, “I hope to create a body of work that reveals trends and pressure points that have yet to be revealed,” McBride says. Because “it’s in those trends that you start to say: ‘Oh, okay, here’s a tool people need.’”

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