Markus Prior, Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton presented some interesting work he did trying to understand if news consumption has changed over the past several decades. We often hear the assertion that people are just consuming less news these days, compounding the problems faced by newspapers. This work is the first I’ve seen to make a real attempt at understanding that assertion.
Markus began his presentation with a chart showing the 50% decline in the network news audience between 1980 and 2005. He followed it, however, with a chart showing a large increase in consumption of cable news when measured by minutes, data which defy conventional wisdom. He noted the impossibility of determining total news consumption, but said that while consumption of paid news is down, overall consumption may very well be up.
What Markus found through his work,though, is that fewer Americans consume more news. When the total population suddenly had more choices (through cable, niche publications, the internet, etc.) those who previously only consumed news because nothing else was available, now filled their time with other types of information and entertainment.
Markus measured a “Relative Entertainment Preference” by asking people what kind of content they like. He found that consumption of news can vary even in the absence of a change in the REP. In other words, it was a change in environment that caused the change in consumption. In a low choice environment more people consumed news, in a high choice environment, less. Given the greater choice (particularly for those with access to new media), those who always were news junkies, are now able to consume even more and are all the more knowledgeable as a result. They are also more likely to vote. He also noted that the population of news junkies was small (he guessed 15 to 20%) and were demographically not very different form the rest of the population. He also said that they were very partisan, but found that this was mainly because those people who were more moderate tended to be pulled away from the news consuming group as choice increased.
Left unanswered in the research was where those non-news junkies went to spend their time. Was it on local news perhaps (since news was here defined as mostly national and international) ? Somewhere else? This is an important question for news companies since finding out how to satisfy those consumers with less interest in news can provide a good foundation on which to expend the resources needed to do that kind of reporting valued by the news junkies. The research may also suggest that more opinionated news may be more appealing to hardcore news types.