OLD-SCHOOL reporters and editors in African newsrooms and social critics will be dismayed by the findings of a new study that seems to sound the death knell for serious journalism.
The study on digital news and media trends in the West by the Reuters Institute – which to some extent mirrors global trends - shows the young are increasingly disengaged from politics and prefer the funny, the weird, the salacious and celebrity gossip over “hard” or political news.
The growth of the Internet and social media have catalysed the process, says the 96-page Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2014, the most authoritative survey of its kind, and which covered 10 developed countries – US, UK, Italy, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Finland, France, Spain, Brazil.
“In many countries, there has traditionally been an amusing item at the end of a news bulletin or included prominently within a print newspaper, but in the digital age this type of news has blossomed, encouraged by sharing of fun pictures and videos through social media sites.”
Interestingly, the preference for the “fun/weird” category now cuts across the gender divide.
“Unlike entertainment and celebrity news, which is mainly driven by women under 35, fun/weird news is appreciated by both men and women. Around a quarter (24%) of 18–24 males and a third of 18–24 women (36%) said it was one of their five most important types of news.”
“Men prefer sports news by a margin of almost three to one compared to women but for celebrity news it is the other way round. Men are more interested in business news; women access more education, health, and local news”
The British, Finns, and Brazilians are cited in the report as the “least interested in political news”, while older people in Germany, Denmark, and the US “express more interest in politics than younger people”.
The single most important source of political “hard” news remains radio and TV, but increasingly conveyed over digital platforms.
In most of the countries covered, broadcast media remains “consistently the single most important and widely used source of news about politics”.
The massive global growth of the mobile phone has had a huge impact on the way news is consumed, argues the report.
It says smartphones and tablets are now growing digital platforms, and that they might soon overtake traditional online platforms - the fixed computer and laptops.
This particular finding is true for Africa, which has seen the fastest and most extensive mobile technology penetration of any continent. Indeed, many African news websites are now optimised for small screens usage and, anecdotally, younger people are keeping up with the news via mobile phones.
“Overall we find that more people are accessing news through a greater number of devices than ever before. The computer remains the most important device for online news, but for many this is now supplemented by heavy usage of smartphones and tablets”, says the report.
“Globally, one-third of 18–34 year olds say the smartphone is their main way of accessing digital news,” the report adds.
But the growing use of mobile phones to access news has come with a drawback - on average less content and sources are viewed by consumers, even though “multi-platform usage” has increased the range of options (meaning that smartphones and tablets allow users to access audio, video, text with ease).
Not bad for newspapers
While newspaper sales in much of Africa have remained stable and fears of a decline have somewhat receded; in the West, trends signal a bleak future for the hardcopy newspaper.
“In all countries, print use is declining, but newspapers retain considerable reach and significance.”
Social media (micro-blogging sites like Twitter and Facebook) and email newsletters are increasingly important sources of news alerts.
“In the US the picture is much more diverse. There too, local newspapers reach a significant audience, but national newspapers trail behind social media and email newsletters and alerts, and are as widely used as a source of information about politics and government issues as online specialist sites/political blogs.”
While the report was primarily designed for Western media policy makers and editors, the findings will definitely have equal resonance in developing world, and most especially Africa, given the growth of mobile technology and social media.