Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

AP’s ethnography of news consumption

A media group in continuous operation since 1846 may not be the company you should look to for advice on the future of media. Or maybe they should: the Associated Press is both doing well in a digital age (when they’re not making boneheaded moves like pretending that fair use doesn’t exist) and looking towards the future, trying to figure out its role in the media ecosystem. And they’re carrying out some very interesting research to determine just what their role is going forwards.

The transformation of newspapers into 24/7 digital newsrooms has been something of a boon for AP. The fact that the newswires constantly churn out new content means that they’ve become one of the main sources for news on newspaper websites. Denis Wu of Boston University did a close study of news coverage on the online and offline properties of CNN and the New York Times and found that coverage was tightly correlated to the locations where newswires have reporters and offices. This correlation was even stronger in online than offline media, suggesting that the online editions of newspapers are even more dependent on newsire content. The Project for Excellence in Journalism observed in their 2006 State of the News Media report that the 14,000 unique stories found on Google News in one 24 hour period only represented 24 discrete news events – that’s a function of wire content being used by a huge number of newspapers and sites around the world.

At the same time, AP is a (nonprofit) business and its customers are newspapers… who are having a very difficult time dealing with the new economic realities of disaggregated, digital media. It’s a cliche of the news industry that young people don’t read newspapers. AP decided to test this assumption by asking a much broader question: how do young people consume news today? Rather than taking a survey of a large number of people and running the risk that their reported behaviors diverge from reality, they hired an ethnographic research firm, which did a “deep dive”, looking very closely at 18 individuals in six cities, located in the US, UK and India.

The interviews with the individuals, summarized in the final report, are pretty fascinating. The researchers managed to find a mix of people ranging from an Indian news junkie who sketches stories on a whiteboard to ensure he’s able to accurately discuss the stories with co-workers to a few Americans who appear to get news only via social osmosis. But one of the difficulties with ethnography as a method for social science research is that it’s hard to get from a small set of anecdotes to supportable conclusions about a whole set of people.

The researchers offer the nine generalizations from their field studies and interviews. I’ve clustered them below, not in the order they appear in the report summary, but in the order I’d like to talk about them. (It’s my blog, after all. You can go read them in the right order in the report if you prefer.)

* News is connected to e-mail
* Constant checking is linked to boredom
* Contemporary lifestyles impact news consumption
* News is multitasked

* Television impacts consumers expectations
* News takes work today but creates social currency

* Consumers are experiencing news fatigue
* Consumers want depth but aren’t getting it
* Story resolution is key and sports and entertainment deliver

Let’s take the first cluster, which seem eminently supportable (and in some cases, obvious.) Young people don’t “make a date” with the newspaper, as previous generations do. Instead, news comes on the radio while driving to work, via TV news in the evening, or from checking headlines when you’re bored at work or checking email. At least one of the research subjects spends his evenings the way I often do, sitting in a room of friends with the TV on, staring at a laptop – the interaction with news in that setting is certainly a multitasked one.

The second cluster are the parts of the study that surprised me. One of the most remarkable reminders in the studies is just how important television news is. Nearly everyone in the study watches television news, and the websites associated with broadcasters are often the ones the subjects turn to when they look for deeper information online. Several participants in the study report being pissed off with TV news, especially local news’s tactic of teasing viewers into watching a whole newscast in order to hear the featured story at the very end. Part of the news fatigue the researchers report appears connected to the idea that the news is unrelentingly negative – Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Trevor McDonald are all cited as important news sources, suggesting that finding a way to make the news funny is a critical way of keeping people engaged.

The other remarkable finding in the study, for me at least, was the number of participants who tried to follow news because it created different forms of social currency. Some watch the news with their parents so they have something to talk about; others read newspapers or follow sports precisely so they have something to argue about. And then there’s the crazy Indian dude with the whiteboard (who really needs a blog, in my opinion.) This idea that news creates redeemable social currency is a really helpful one, which Jack Shafer takes in an interesting direction on Slate, arguing that newspapers no longer are in a good place to create this social capital.

The last cluster is the generalizations I’m less comfortable with. The authors argue that news fatigue is a function not just of negativity, but of too many headlines. Some of the people in the study (basically, everyone who has internet access at work) report restlessly reloading news websites waiting for something new to appear. This is a pretty unsatisfying experience with most news stories, which don’t change all that fast, but it’s an easy form of news to get and one that cable news networks now appear obsessed with. It was less clear to me than from the researchers that this constitutes a consumer desire for depth – it simply looked like boredom with the same old headlines to me.

The fact that sports and entertainment news are so popular leads the researchers to conclude that closure is an important issue – by the end of the night, the baseball game is over, and the Red Sox won or lost. No need to check back again. (Unclear quite how this applies to celebrity news – I guess Brittney can be pregnant or not pregnant, nuts or not nuts, but that does seem to be endlessly in flux.)

The imporance of closure is one of the ideas that led to the “deep structure” the AP ethnographers identify for news, depicted graphically below.

News consumers in the US get lots of facts, quickly updated and delivered through a variety of media. But they get very little backstory to help contextualize the facts delivered, and rarely get follow-up stories, or speculations about the future. All that seems true to me, but it’s hard for me to extrapolate that from the 18 interviews the researchers performed. The AP report makes it clear that this is the magic of ethnography – the invisible roots below the visible tree of interviews. To me, it sounds like a couple of smart anthropologists cogitating about the state of global journalism and offering a (potentially correct) diagnosis.

The concern is this – if there’s a deep desire for depth going unmet by contemporary journalism, a need to have stories followed through their resolution and explored as to their future implications, that’s a highly solveable problem. There are lots of journalists – most of them, I’d posit – who’d like to explain stories in more depth to readers. I’m having a hard time resolving the study’s evidence of people “snacking” on news with a profound desire for depth.

I’m guessing that AP doesn’t entirely buy this either. Their response to the ethnographic study has been a new newsroom model, called “1-2-3 Filing”. Each story is filed first as a 50 character headline. Then it’s filed as a 130 word summary, which could be placed on the web, read by a broadcaster, or sent via email. Some stories will merit a third phase, either a “full” 500 word story or some sort of graphic or multimedia coverage.

That sounds a great deal like a model designed to give facts and updates, not one that does a great job of tracking stories through their conclusion and following them to create new stories. And call me crazy, but there are more than a few stories that I suspect would benefit from more than 500 words of background (Georgia/Russia/South Ossetia is one that leaps to mind right now. Perhaps this isn’t AP’s core strength… but given the importance of wire services in providing information in the digital age, it makes me worry that no one else is going to work on the “below the fold” issues identified in the model above. It seems like having a chunk of AP focused on following stories over time and providing in-depth packages of information (multimedia and otherwise) to back up this updates would be a worthwhile thing to do.

Aside from the social capital observation – which I think is right on, and is worth exploring further – the biggest thing I took from report was the connection between sports coverage and other news coverage. Dan Gillmor has observed that one of the reasons sportswriting is often so strong is that everyone already knows the score. Serious fans don’t need to know that the Sox won last night – they want to hear about Tim Wakefield’s frustrations with lack of run support, or Terry Francona’s metrics for evaluating Wakefield based on quality starts and innings pitched rather than wins.

Good sports journalism includes personalities and personal stories. I’m watching the Olympics while writing this, and NBC has already convinced me to root for Raj Bhavsar in Men’s gymnastics, by talking about his obsessive devotion and showing the bulletin board in his bedroom listing his olympic goals. This sort of personal storytelling – as well as constant speculation about future events – is a regular feature of US political coverage, and probably has been overdone. But my sense is that international news reporting might need a good, strong dose of it if the goal is to get readers beyond news fatigue and frustration with endlessly repeated headlines that make little sense due to lack of context.

3 Responses to “AP’s ethnography of news consumption”

  1. Jared says:

    I’m not so sure I agree with everything. Look at ESPN, which does so well with the NFL. They capture a tremendous amount of coverage of speculation. Sure, they do their highlights on Sunday’s game. But by Tuesday afternoon they begin hyping the next big game. It seems it’s the build up, the fans wanting someone, somewhere, to say what they’re thinking – to validate them. Almost all of it is BS, but they get a lot of people caught up in it… I think a lot of it goes back to “I want to hear —–“

  2. This is such an interesting post. As someone who (sort of) works for the AP, such processes are not illuminated to even those of us who earn a meager day rate from them, time to time.

    There are other pieces of information I would have loved to read alongside this informative group of points:

    -How does the AP compare to Reuters, AFP, BBC, etc?
    -How do major media events like the Olympics and the American Elections, which mean budget cuts for places like Uganda, affect consumers’ consumptions patterns? Are there news consumers who want to read about things other than Obama and Beijing? How could AP be meeting these needs?
    -If consumers of news say they want more depth, why is this a need not met by news wires? I find that a lot of people google terms and find my blog because they want to know more about the news behind the news, and what happened after the story. While this is satisfying for me personally, it is far from an economically viable way for me to work as long a the AP is not interested in supporting me to provide this kind of content.
    -I’m also interested in the economics of making a single news story – something which may go beyond the breadth of this post, but is nonetheless interesting: if the AP pays me X dollars to take photos for one day, what percent of their operating cost does that represent? Clearly, I file my work to someone in Nairobi or Joburg, who puts it on the wire, who puts it in the papers, etc, but if there are only 24 discrete news events in 24 hours, and this is related to where the wires have stringers, what is the cost to the wire of having another stringer somewhere else?

    Thanks for presenting all this information!

    Glenna (Scarlett Lion)

  3. Ethan, there’s a bad link in the body — the AP report (which I agree is very interesting, while also of course being quite self-serving) has the extension newmodel.pdf (not hewmodel.pdf, which is how it comes up for some reason).
    The thing that intrigues me about these studies (I include the annual State of the News Media studies)is that they take for granted the existence of some abstract thing called “news”, even as their own findings point firmly at the notion that a better word would be “stuff that I can talk to my friends about and…ideally…look just a little smarter and/or cooler than them”. The 2008 State of the Media study does get closer to this “news as social capital (or is it the Pew & Youth & News study? — sorry, I’ve read so many of these that I get muddled) in pointing out that people seem to respond more to stories about individuals (hence celebrities) and even individual animals (hence the interest, at the time of the study, in the fate of the race horse with a broken leg), rather than to events or “issues.” The unbundling of content that everyone has noted seems to make inevitable that the world will sort out into a small number of people who are interested in, say, the doings of the Afghan parliament, just as there is a small number who are interested in other esoteric topics (my marker for a totally esoteric interest that I used to use in arguments was “fans of left-handed albino penguins” but then I discovered that ther is a whole raft of websites devoted to penguins, including pages on a genetic variation that leaves them blonde –not quite albino, and still no mention of which flipper they prefer, but close enough to my conjectural case that I have realized I can’t possibly make up anything that the internet hasn’t already done a hundred times over).

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