Inside Story

The bad news

Are Australians abandoning the news? Drawing on new survey material Sally Young looks at the drift away from conventional news and the evidence about where audiences are going

Sally Young 17 December 2008 2870 words

Marie-France Bélanger/

TRADITIONALLY, Australians have been big news consumers, but this is changing. Even though we are spending more time with media today, we’re spending less time on news. For many Australians, news in its traditional forms is no longer a daily priority and fewer people are turning to the traditional sources of news and current affairs – especially newspapers and TV.

Newspapers have had problems for a long time. Sales have been in decline since the 1970s – in fact, if we take into account increases in population, newspaper sales in Australia have halved since 1970. Older Australians are still reading newspapers because they’ve been doing it for most of their lives. Their loyalty is keeping the broadsheet papers afloat. Surveys of newspaper readership usually focus on the reading habits of Australians aged fourteen and over. Of that group, 38 per cent are fifty or older. But those readers account for nearly half of the readers of the Canberra Times, the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald.

But this is not just a problem for newspapers. On TV, it’s the same older audience that watches news and current affairs programs. Overall, Australians 55 years plus are the heaviest TV viewers – they average over four hours per day watching TV while young Australians average 2.5 hours. Today, people under forty years old watch less TV than they did in the 1990s. And even when they do switch on they’re not turning to news and current affairs in the way that they used to. Over the past seven years the proportion of people watching news and current affairs programs has dropped dramatically – by 38 per cent for the under seventeens, 29 per cent for the eighteen to twenty-fours, 27 per cent for the twenty-five to thirty-nines and 10 per cent for the forty to fifty-fours. Tens of thousands of news viewers have switched off. Only in the over fifty-five age group has there been any growth in watching news and current affairs programs.

For radio, if we look at the formats that are especially associated with politics, news and current affairs – such as talkback radio – it’s the same story. These news-intense formats rely on the same ageing demographic. In New South Wales and Victoria, for example, over 60 per cent of 2GB, 2UE and 3AW audiences are over fifty; at the “quality” end, 64 per cent of the ABC Radio National audience is over fifty. Clearly, some of this has to do with time. Talkback listeners include retirees, builders, drivers and motor mechanics – people who have the radio on while they’re driving or in the background as they do the housework or gardening. We might also expect that there is an older audience for “older” media – newspapers and radio – but all of the formats associated with political news and current affairs have older audiences, and this includes newer forms like pay TV and even the internet.

About 30 per cent of the Australian population now has pay TV. For people who can afford it, pay has opened up over a hundred channels. For the news-hungry, one of those options is twenty-four hour news – a constant stream of “breaking news” and headlines throughout the day. In Australia, the most watched twenty-four hour news channel is Sky News. But Sky News’s audience is just as old as newspaper readers: 48 per cent of its viewers are over fifty and 82 per cent are over thirty-five.

Even on the internet – if we’re talking about traditional “hard” news and especially political news – this pattern holds true. American research has shown that people who go online for political news and information are older than internet users in general. Political blogs receive only a miniscule portion of web traffic: the profile of someone who reads a political blog on a daily basis is a male who is wealthier than average, has college or postgraduate education and is aged over thirty-five. In fact, in the United States 39 per cent of people who read a political blog on a daily basis are aged over fifty-five. As a Pew Research Center report noted in 2008, “seniors who go online are at least a likely to regularly read blogs about politics and current events.”

The older news audience is not confined to Australia. The average viewer of CNN in the United States is sixty years. The average newspaper reader in Britain is fifty-four. And nor is this older audience, in itself, a new trend. If we looked back at media consumption data from thirty years ago, they would also show that younger people were less interested in news than older people. What’s different now is a trend that is occurring not just in Australia but also in many other similar countries. As David T. Z. Mindich notes in his book Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News, “It used to be that most twenty-five year olds, and certainly thirty-five year olds, followed the news. But for the past few decades, most have not. Eighty percent of young people don’t read the newspaper today, and there is no evidence that they will read twenty years from now, either.”

Until recently, the conventional wisdom has been that young people pick up the news habit in their twenties because, until then, they’re focused on other things (getting a job, studying, travelling, moving out, socialising, etc). Traditionally, they started seeking out news as they aged – once they got a mortgage, had kids in school, and wanted more information about issues in the news. But if they didn’t get the news habit in their twenties, according to some researchers, many never got it. And what’s worrying about the trend we’re seeing now is the extent of news avoidance by younger Australians. It isn’t as though younger Australians never watched TV news, for example. They did – but now 38 per cent of them have switched off. The question of course is: where have they gone? Have they switched off news or just off traditional media such as newspapers and TV? The next question, of course, is: have they gone to the internet for news? The answer is “yes” but not everybody and they’re not necessarily going to the places we might expect.

AT THIS POINT, we need to make more of a distinction between different news audiences. We’ve looked at the factor of age but there are other very important lines of division. The reason that the news-intense media (such as newspapers, talkback, ABC radio and Sky News) keep yielding the same figure – that 40 to 60 per cent of their audience is over fifty – is because, in many cases, these are the same people. People who like news use multiple sources. But we also need to recognise that this isn’t one single group. What they have in common is age and a “news habit”: they like watching/reading/listening to news. But have different news preferences. There are broadsheet readers and tabloid readers; there are ABC listeners and 2GB listeners, and there are SBS news viewers and Channel Seven news viewers.

Let’s start with newspapers. As the American Project for Excellence in Journalism has noted: “People who love to follow the news, and especially those who love politics, prefer newspapers over every other medium.” There are some politically active consumers who read tabloids and/or listen to talkback radio. But research shows that the “elite” audience – the educated and affluent – especially prefer broadsheets. Indeed, the profile of a heavy news consumer is a male who is over fifty, richer, better-educated and more politically active. But the rest – which is the vast majority of the population – prefer TV. For over 80 per cent of Australians, TV is the main source of news and current affairs. Therefore, if we want to have a democracy with an informed citizenry at it’s heart, when people stop watching TV news or when the quality deteriorates (or when both happen at once), we all have a lot to worry about. Unless, of course, they’re going somewhere better for their news?

We know that Australian audiences are switching off TV news. The assumption in some quarters is that they’ve all gone to the internet yet we also know that internet access is not universal: that there is a “digital divide” and that a new medium doesn’t necessarily create an interest in news. From an analysis of the media consumption data, I think the audience is going in several different directions for news according to three main factors: age, interest in news and socioeconomic factors.

The older elite news audience is still reading broadsheet newspapers but some have switched to the online version rather than the printed copy. Older elites are still listening to radio but they are watching less TV and, when they do watch, are almost exclusively watching the ABC. People in this group are also going to the internet for online newspapers (including overseas newspapers), specialist news websites, personalised news search engines and pay TV twenty-four hour news channels. These online trends are especially pronounced among the younger elite audience members and especially males. But, overall, reading online newspapers or accessing hard news sites is still a minority activity. No more than 10 per cent of the online audience accesses the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald or the ABC online. The Sydney Morning Herald is the most visited online newspaper in Australia but only 2 per cent of fourteen to seventeen year olds visit it, rising to 8 per cent of eighteen to twenty-four year olds and 10 per cent for twenty-five to thirty-four year olds. When people go there, they stay, on average, only seven minutes.

The general news audience, whose main source used to be TV, seems to have moved away from news in its traditional forms. While older Australians continue to watch TV and some buy newspapers, young Australians, according to TV industry execs, are often doing other things. They’re using games consoles and computer games a lot as well as texting on mobiles and using the internet. But when they’re on the internet they’re not necessarily looking for news. Young people use the internet predominantly for emailing, socialising and entertainment as well as shopping, doing homework/research, playing games and downloading music. By the time they turn twenty-five they’re also using it for paying bills and looking for jobs. When they do look at news websites, the young elite audience is going to online broadsheets and ABC online while the young general audience is going to Ninemsn, Google news and online tabloids, but some of this is incidental rather than deliberate. The most popular news website for those under twenty-four is Ninemsn, but this is mainly because anyone who has a Hotmail email account is led to Ninemsn automatically when they close their email. Visits to such sites average only two minutes, according to one report.

While newspapers and TV are losing young audiences, some other sources are gaining them. Free commuter newspapers (like MX) and FM radio news – with their bite-sized approach to news – as well as comedy shows on TV (such as Good News Week or The Chaser) and radio breakfast shows – with their irreverent approach – are now key sources for young Australians. Online sources are also a major way in which “news” reaches young people but this includes celebrity and entertainment news as well as a variety of websites and other forms of communication including emails and instant messaging.

Online news is faster but it is also shorter and the concept of “news” is broader. It might include news about one’s social group rather than national or political news and it might be distributed through peer networks rather than through journalists and media organisations. For news, young people may be using Google searches or RSS feeds, for example, to a greater extent than is commonly recognised. Or they may be using a combination of sources to piece together their own story – for example, searching for the name of a country that’s in the news and then being taken to Wikipedia or another site that, in theory, can give as much background information as a broadsheet reader would get. It’s difficult to be sure how widespread such activities are because the ways in which younger audiences access news online make it hard for us to measure their news consumption.

One recent study suggests, though, that they are probably not particularly common. A new book by Matthew Hindman, the result of a large project mapping use of the internet for news and political participation, is called The Myth of Digital Democracy. Hindman found from analysing search engine activity that, when citizens search for news, three-fifths of their searches are for the names of familiar news outlets (such as CNN) rather than searches by news topic (such as “Sudan,” for example). He also found that “news” searches were far more likely to be for the weather report and sport scores than for politics or other types of news. According to Hindman, only “about three of every hundred site visits is to a news and media Web site” and these visits are focused on the same top twenty outlets.

ALTHOUGH THERE ARE interesting continuities between the internet and the more traditional use of media, there’s also no doubt that, broadly speaking, a shift is taking place in how people find out what’s going on in the world. For many Australians – those with sufficient income and access – choice is much greater and, as a result, audiences are fragmenting. People no longer follow the set media rituals of the past, reading a newspaper over breakfast or on the train on the way to work and then sitting down after work at six o’clock to watch the news on TV. Instead, people who have good access to the internet and pay TV are circumnavigating making up their own schedules.

For news junkies and the elite audience this means being able to choose from a range of media options and a plethora of news websites and sources. Why read about the US election in the Age when you can read about it online from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian or specialist websites such as Politico or the Huffington Post? Or watch it through pay TV on Sky News, CNN or Fox News? Or listen to it through digital radio? Or even watch interview clips on the US television network websites?

But what of the general news audience, those who are switching off TV news? The new world of faster, shorter, personalised content and greater choice will mean that for someone who is mainly interested in sports news or celebrity news there are now dedicated websites. Or, for those who just want classified ads, there are the eBay or Domain or Carsales websites. Because this tends to negate the need to buy a whole newspaper or watch a full half hour news bulletin, general audiences are also circumventing the mass audience approach that saw media companies put everything in one product in an attempt to reach a broad audience. Media companies used to put political news at the front of a TV news bulletin or a newspaper even if they suspected many audience members were only waiting for the sports news or turning to the classifieds. Now, as audiences take a more targeted approach, media companies will follow and may not see much value in putting political news up-front if they know that the politics news junkies have already got their fill somewhere else. Where once political news was seen as a general-news staple it may come to be viewed as a niche product for a niche audience.

This means that the audience to watch in the near future is not the elite audience, who will be better-served by the internet and new media as media companies find ways to reach this lucrative and active news-seeking audience, but the general news audience – the majority of the population – who used to watch TV news but are now switching off. If they continue to turn off TV news they may not necessarily replace this with something else. Or, if they do, it may be a very different concept of news in the future. •

• Sally Young and Margaret Simons debate this article at The Content Makers

Much of the data mentioned in this article comes from material kindly provided by Roy Morgan Research. Information on TV ratings comes from material supplied to the author by OzTAM. Other sources include ABC audience research, AC Nielsen radio ratings, ASTRA, the Australian Press Council and Commercial Radio Australia.