To build News Mixer we had to complete a lot of research first. Research on the current state of journalism, society and media audiences. Research on young adult news consumers, industry leaders and our Cedar Rapids market. Research on digital content, technology and social software. Needless to say, we learned a lot. We digested what we learned into a list of findings to share with fellow journalists, news organizations and media companies.
Findings on journalism, society and media audiences:
(1) Journalism is not just about reporting and distributing facts; the role of journalism is also to generate conversations and provide a forum for debate. In the early years of American newspapers, as journalism historian David Paul Nord wrote in his book Communities of Journalism, the forum function was dominant. Newspapers served as a place for conversation and debate, and some papers filled page after page with letters from readers. But by the mid-20th century, as the number of papers declined, journalism became defined mostly as reporting and conveying facts. Opinions were banished to a heavily edited page or two of the paper.
(2) Overall levels of civic engagement have declined over the past 50 years, as documented in Robert Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone.” Putnam, for instance, found declines in volunteering, PTA membership and voter turnout. The decline in civic engagement connects also to declining use of news media, especially local news.
(3) The 2008 election suggests, however, that online social networking tools have the potential for regenerating civic engagement among young adults. Barack Obama’s campaign engaged millions young people by tapping into online social networks.
(4) According to the PEW Research Center for the People & the Press’s News Consumption and Believability Study, “Four in 10 Americans under 25 say they feel overloaded by the amount of news available today.
(5) Young adults prefer to get their news online. “Abandoning the News,” published by the Carnegie Corporation, thirty-nine per cent of respondents under the age of thirty-five told researchers that they expected to use the Internet in the future for news purposes; just eight per cent said that they would rely on a newspaper.
(6) Eric Alterman, wrote in “The death and life of the American newspaper,” in the March 31, 2008 issue of the New Yorker, “Print newspapers are not managing to engage young adults. The average age of the American newspaper reader is 55 and rising. Only 19 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 claim even to look at a daily newspaper.”
(7) According to PEW’s News Consumption and Believability Study, “Many young adults say they are too busy to keep up with the news. “Many people in their mid-20s through their mid-30s say they are simply too busy to keep up with the news. Overall, just 30% are too busy to follow the news, while 68% say it is “pretty easy.” But about four-in-ten (41%) younger adults – those ages 25 to 34 – say they often are too busy to follow the news.”
(8) Young adults are far less likely than older Americans to enjoy keeping up with the news. “Consistent with the Pew Research Center’s past media consumption surveys, young people are far less likely than older Americans to say they get a great deal of enjoyment from following news. Enjoyment of the news has consistently been associated with higher levels of both news interest and news consumption,” according to the PEW study.
(9) Most young people check in on the news from time to time rather than get it at regular times. “An overwhelming proportion of very young people are news grazers, checking in on the news from time to time. Nearly eight-in-ten of those younger than 25 (78%) say they get the news from time to time. Even among people only somewhat older – those ages 25 to 34 – a much smaller majority (56%) says they check on the news rather than getting it at regular times. Among those 50 and older, most say they get the news at regular times,” according to the PEW study.
(10) People who get news from time to time watch and read less news overall than those who get news at regular times. “Americans who gather news from time to time watch and read less news overall than do those who get news at regular times. News grazers spend on average 56 minutes per day consuming news. By contrast, regular-time news consumers on average spend 79 minutes per day consuming news,” according to the PEW study.
(11) Social networks are extremely popular among young adults. According to the Pew report, 82 percent of 18-24-year-olds have established a profile on MySpace, Facebook or another social networking site. The same is true of 60 percent of those 25-29 and 41 percent of those 30-34.
(12) According to the June 2008 Associated Press study, A New Model for News: Studying the Deep Structure of Young-Adult News Consumption, “Young adults are dissatisfied with the way news is presented online. They feel overwhelmed by facts and updates, while not getting enough context and understanding.”
(13) One way to interest young adults in news is to capitalize on the value of news as “social currency in their interactions with others,” the AP report said.
(14) The interaction tools used on news Web sites – generally, an open-ended comment box – often become platforms for ranting, hostility and racism rather than reasoned dialogue.
(15) Many online users don’t like comments as they currently exist:
— People think there is no pay-off or gratification from participation. 44 percent of our survey panel said they wouldn’t get anything out of participating in online commenting and conversations.
— People do not think comments are believable. 43 percent of those surveyed said they thought most comments left by others are inaccurate.
— People don’t like communicating with strangers. 62 percent of our survey respondents replied that they disagreed with the statement, “I like to communicate online with people I don’t know.” In phone interviews, this continued to be a significant subject. Some participants were concerned about the ramifications of interactions with people they didn’t know for fear of insulting someone or causing a negative impact on their future employment, others simply preferred to avoid contact with strangers in most if not all cases.
Findings on digital content, technology and social software:
(1) Successful digital journalism/media products require deep integration of content and technology, and deep collaborations between journalists and computer programmers. This means media companies need to bridge the gap between the two disciplines.
(2) There is a fundamental disconnect between programmers and non-programmers, but they have a lot in common that can be leveraged. People on both sides of the development disconnect need to understand the vision of the project to reduce the potential for problems. People generally have a lot of experience using computer systems and may find it easier to understand how they are built then they think. Non-programmers should use this opportunity in working with developers to learn more about how computer systems work, and programmers should put forth the effort to teach.
(3) Agile programming is a powerful way to organize interdisciplinary teams to produce functional Web sites.
(4) By using an almost completely free and open source toolkit — most notably Django, MySQL, WordPress, and Trac — we were able to hit the ground running, at no cost, and build News Mixer faster than any of us anticipated.
(5) Enabling user interaction can dramatically drive traffic and user loyalty on news Web sites. For example, the Monroe (Mich.) Evening News’s Monroe Talks site, which has been operating since March 2007, averages close to 1 million page views per month, and has served as an effective forum for its readers to discuss the things that affect their community. As of December 2008, Monroetalks.com boasts more than a quarter-million comments on more than 11,000 topics; all generated by about 3,400 members. While traffic is heavier on the Monroenews.com site, the Monroetalks.com forums receive nearly twice as many page views as the news site. Shaw said the average user spends about 15 minutes on the site – a great amount of time in the Internet news industry.
(6) Advances in Web technology in recent years now allow designers and developers to design rich systems for user interaction, far beyond what was possible using HTML pages in the earlier days of the Web.
(7) Only a minority of users participate in online conversations. According to web usability expert, Jakob Nielson, 90 percent of online users are lurkers (people who read or observe but do not contribute), nine percent of users contribute from time to time, and one percent of users participate a lot and account for most online contributions.
(8) Passionate people are essential to online discussion, but the passion can also deter othersfrom participating.
(9) People don’t like to register to participate in online discussions, but user anonymity – or a lack of consistent online identity – can contribute to incivility.
(10) Online conversations can be made more productive and interesting through human intervention — moderation or encouragement.
(11) Successful “social software” (e.g., Slashdot, Vita.mn, Intense Debate) often leverages technology in creative ways to channel people’s interactions more productively.
(12) Social network sites such as Facebook and MySpace are beginning to make user identities portable across other Web sites. This trend offers advantages to users (fewer logins, the ability to interact with your social network on multiple sites) but also raises privacy concerns.
(13) Facebook Connect offers rich possibilities for building more successful Web sites geared to conversations around news. A Web site integrated with Facebook Connect allows users to log in without creating a new user ID and password. The quality of conversation may be enhanced by the fact that people’s comments are visible to their Facebook friends. Through Facebook Connect, the site becomes personalized automatically – posts from your social network are highlighted. Furthermore, posts to the site can be distributed to your social network via the Facebook news feed.
(14) Over time, new standards may emerge that will standardize how personal data is shared across Web sites and give users more control over their personal information. Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li predicts that within five to 10 years, social networks will be “like air.” Michael Arrington, founder and co-editor of TechCrunch says, “Users eventually need one place on the Internet to store their data, or lots of places to store different types of data. But what they don’t want is today’s world where they are recreating and storing the same data over a plethora of social networks just because all those sites refuse to share.”