TCS Daily


Hunting and Gathering

By Jay Currie - May 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Last fall the Nielsen television ratings service reported men in the demographic sweetspot between 18 and 34 were watching less television. Much less television: for 18-24 year olds the decline was 20%.

It is not just television or young men. Online Journalism Review reports:

  • (MORI), presented data showing that young adults are increasingly less interested in newspapers. Scarborough Research found that 44.6 percent of young adults read a newspaper each weekday in 1996 but only 38.5 percent did in 2001.
  • MORI found that 39 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds read a newspaper daily in 1997 but only 26 percent did in 2001.
  • In 2001, John Bartolomeo -- of Clark, Martire & Bartolomeo -- warned that just 9 percent of 20-to-29-year-olds will read weekday newspapers in 2010.

Meanwhile, Seventeen Magazine, "slumped to an average of 315,000 copies - a newsstand falloff of 35% from late 2001," according to the New York Daily News. And an Online Publishing Association survey found:

"72% of all 18 to 34 year olds in the US are now online -- perhaps unsurprisingly the highest percentage of any age group in the country.

"Some 30% regularly view entertainment websites, just short of the 32% that read similar pages in newspapers.

"But much higher than the only 19% that read entertainment magazines."

The New York Times suggests that the fact 75% of the 18-34 men have internet access is likely a significant factor in the decline of television viewing. However, the Times sees this as a substitution effect with the "missing men" swapping online gaming, porn, comedy clips and offline gaming for hours spent in front of the TV.

Here at TCS Arthur Kling and Sidney Goldberg took a hard look at the business and economics of newspapers back in 2002. Goldberg was optimistic that newspapers would survive by dropping "paper" and replacing it with pixels, Kling was more pessimistic suggesting that the entire centralized presentation of information was open to challenge from the net.

In fact, what may be happening is a largely unanticipated outcome of a fully wired generation's own understanding of itself and its command of the technology.

Television, newspapers and magazines are based on a "few to the many" model. Pre-web economic reality gave us the old joke about the only people who have freedom of the press are people who own one.

Owning a press, or a television station or a magazine is a capital intensive proposition. Physical presses cost millions, broadcast quality television studios and the gear to transmit the signal more millions, running a national magazine whether for teenage girls or sports enthusiasts or a general audience, is hugely expensive. In each media, the economic barriers to entry (including such things as licenses, distribution agreements, racking agreements) and the ability of existing players to buyout, copy and hire away key staff make creating a new entity prohibitively expensive.

The expense of existing media creates a sometimes dynamic, but often startlingly conservative, tension when it comes to content. After all, the value of the franchise is based on retaining existing viewers or subscribers. Any innovation designed to attract new viewers or subscribers has to be balanced against the potential erosion of the existing base.

Culturally, this means that major media trend towards the bland. Some sort of consensus representation of the world. Which is exactly what younger audiences don't want.

Younger generations throughout history have rejected what they see as the tired old media of their elders. But in the era of mass media -- until the arrival of the internet, and specifically high speed internet -- the only way to challenge the media establishment was to join it.

No more. As the internet itself becomes the media for younger audiences who have grown up "with a joystick in their hand" and full internet capability at their disposal, those audiences have developed a new way of consuming culture.

Writing about radio, Peter Tupper nails it:

"Likewise, radio is on the way out, as the youth medium for music, as replaced by Internet music, downloaded and played on various devices. Kids today, brought up on DVD players, Napster, iPods, etc. want what they want when they want it. They don't want to listen to somebody else's idea of music, and they don't want to wait for a song they like to come around when they can hunt for music they do like. Radio demands a passivity that the kids today won't stand for."

Using the internet, younger audiences are assembling, organizing and sharing their own news/entertainment/information in ways which no longer fit traditional media categories.

Link sites and blogs are all reflecting a shift away from the traditional divisions between cultural products towards what might be called buzz or flow. Instead of reading a daily paper or watching television news or picking up a special interest magazine, internet enabled consumers are finding their own information.

The most obvious form of this phenomena are websites such as www.slashdot.com or www.fark.com (Sample headline: "Condoleezza Rice buckles to pressure: Agrees to provide meaningless, unhelpful testimony before irrelevant committee of congressional idiots") or a strange "lad culture" sites like www.sensibleerection.com. These sites and their often more specialized clones provide links to news edited and headlined -- and often commented -- which is driven from the user level up.

The basic model for these sites is that virtually anyone can submit a news item, bit of popular culture, link to a video or picture of a pretty girl/car/piece of software. In some cases people roughly equivalent to editors check out the link and decide to put it up, in others the registered users are able to "moderate" the items. But the users drive the sites and it is their interests, what they have found on the net, which is the content.

General interest blogs such as http://boingboing.net provided the same sort of off kilter mix of news, strange cultural phenomena and entertainment picks and pans.

At the other end of the food chain are personal blogs which will often combine a given take on the news with raves about obscure bands or books or indy movies which push them a little further into the mainstream.

In every case, these internet-only information aggregators allow audiences to entirely bypass the editors at traditional media in order to find the information, news, culture and presentation which interests them. At the moment "hunting and gathering" is, relative to mass media, a fairly small scale phenomena. But as broadband penetration increases the ability of users to download video and music, there are fewer reasons for internet users to log off and consume other media.

Hunting and gathering as opposed to consuming pre-packaged information should, in principle, inflict costs on the user. After all the mass media newspaper model put all the news, culture and entertainment in one convenient place. Reporters and editors worked so the consumer didn't have to.

The problem with this model was that it necessarily imposed the choices of the newspaper on its readers. News judgment, balance, objectivity, political correctness filtered the news. So did everything from advertising sales considerations, the proprietor's politics and good taste. If a newspaper reader didn't like this mix, tough. The only alternative was read a different paper if one was available.

Hunting and gathering on the net subverts the agenda setting function of the mass media and the marketing efforts of the entertainment conglomerates. Independent film review sites such as http://aint-it-cool-news.com/ can sink a film in hours.

Hunting and gathering on the net substitutes network effects for top down editor/reporter methods. In the old media, Richard Clarke's story about the Bush Whitehouse failing to follow up on the pre-9/11 terrorist leads played for several days without mentioning his prior, inconsistent, statements. But in the blog world, Bush supporters armed with Google and access to Nexis, were posting statement after statement which directly contradicted Clarke's testimony to the 9/11 Commission. (Glen Reynolds writing in The National Interest, cites chapter and verse on the ability of ad hoc blogging to beat the bigs on spin and facts.)

For a generation brought up with internet access, the top down culture of big media is actually an impediment to gaining information. Rather than reading 24 hour old consensus news on dead trees or watching high Q-rated anchors deliver news-lite, young people are turning to the internet for entertainingly presented, opinionated and often utterly unbalanced fragments of information.

Networked, skeptical and most of all wired, kids are constructing their own version of their world. Versions which publishers, advertisers and politicians are just beginning to understand.

Jay Currie recently wrote for TCS about Fallujah. His other writing can be found here.


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