Consuming news without a printed newspaper

By EMILY JASHINSKY | Jan. 27, 2015

Generational gaps in behavior are nothing new. But as technological advancements have begun to alter life dramatically over shorter and shorter time spans, these generational gaps in behavior have become more specific and pronounced.

Kids today aren’t just lazy and rebellious — they’re hooked on video games, consumed by reality television, addicted to the Internet and glued to their smartphones. Or that’s how some people might see it.

Sure, I’m a millennial. Sure, I have a sick Pavlovian relationship with my iPhone. And, yes, I probably spend more time listening to “The Real Housewives” complain about carbohydrates than their therapists do.

But I’m also a news junkie, and I’ve never subscribed to a printed newspaper. Thirty years ago, that combination would have been impossible.

In 1993, the year I was born, the Pew Research Center found that around 50% of Americans got their news by reading a printed newspaper. By the time I entered college in 2011, that number had been sliced nearly in half. And today, only 10.4% of Wisconsinites get their news from a printed newspaper, according to a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute poll released on Jan. 13.

Not long ago, printed newspapers were the gatekeepers of information. No well-informed American could go very long without picking up a paper. Clearly, that has changed.

The WPRI poll found striking differences in the way older and younger Wisconsinites consume news. When asked where they get most of their news on a typical weekday, 20% of people ages 65 and older responded that it was from a printed newspaper. But a mere 6.4% of respondents ages 18 to 44 get their news that way. Instead, 53% of that demographic relies on the Internet for news.

The Internet, of course, can be a notoriously unreliable source. The Internet prompted CNN to report on a photo that allegedly showed Bigfoot’s corpse. It also caused many of us to believe that “The Blair Witch Project” was a documentary. (Are we still convinced that it’s not?) And then there’s Wikipedia. Moral of the story: The Internet is a place where anything can look like real news, whether it is or not.

Older Americans may long for the days when professional journalists determined what was “news” and what was unworthy of their readers’ attention. Now anybody with word processing software and the Internet can be a Woodward or Bernstein or both.

Some people laud this “democratization” of the news. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for professional curators of news such as editors and other journalists, who may hold biases (political, cultural or otherwise), to control the flow of information the way they did in the past. Consumers appear to have adapted seamlessly to changes in the news industry.

In 2012, Pew released a fascinating study on how the advent of digital news was affecting Americans’ consumption of information. Pew hypothesized that the Internet was creating a more “multi-platform” reader who got their news from a variety of sources.

For instance, Pew reported, “Nearly a fifth of mobile news users, 19%, have paid for a digital news subscription of some kind in the last year, and a third of tablet news users with digital subscriptions have added new subscriptions since they acquired the device.”

The same study found that the web was increasing the amount of news Americans consume, increasing their levels of engagement with the news and encouraging them to read articles more closely.

Furthermore, popular social media sites bring the news to users who don’t even ask for it. Facebook reserves a space next to every user’s Newsfeed for trending news. News outlets such as CNN have millions of followers on Twitter. Political statements are commonplace on Instagram as well. For most millennials, moderate exposure to the news is unavoidable.

Of course, this isn’t to say social media is grooming a generation of informed and politically conscious individuals. Older Americans probably believe it’s grooming a generation of Kardashian-konscious individuals. And, in my case, they would be correct.

But you can’t find that information in a printed newspaper. On the Internet, everything is accessible in one click. Whether it’s news about Khloe Kardashian’s diet or President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, I can find it and read it without turning a page.

Emily Jashinsky of Delafield attends George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She was an intern at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute in 2014. This column reflects her personal opinion.