The future of news: Next gen journos prefer digital

A QUT study in Brisbane has found most student journalists don’t read newspapers. Last Saturday, QUT issued a media release entitled “Stop Press: Forests Saved. Next gen journos prefer digital”. The release was about the results of a survey QUT Journalism Professor Alan Knight ran to find out how first year university students got their news. The problem with newspapers, say the students, is there are too many long-winded articles, there’s no search engines and worst of all they get ink on your fingers. The study says a lot about the future of news, while the way the study was reported says much about the present.

Professor Knight will present the full results to the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre annual conference in New Delhi in July. However the summary showed two important findings. First was 95 percent of the students enjoyed keeping up with news – as you’d hope with people who want to become journalists. But the second fact contradicted the first: more than half of those surveyed read a newspaper “once a week or less often.”

I attended a Newswriting lecture at QUT on Tuesday where Professor Knight spoke about the future of news. During his wide-ranging talk he painted a bleak outlook for newspapers, though some specialist papers such at the Australian Financial Review (which hides most of its content behind a paywall) would survive. He also mentioned his survey findings and pointed accusingly at his audience who, he said, preferred to get their news from commercial TV.

On Wednesday ABC picked up the story that Journalism students “don’t read papers”. Except it would appear that the ABC don’t read media releases. The ABC said, incorrectly, the survey found 90 per cent of students don’t like reading newspapers. Whereas, what Knight actually said was “More than 90 per cent of the respondents were aged under 21 and many of these want-to-be journalists don’t read newspapers.” The actual figure was 60 per cent.

I did not realise the ABC’s error until I spoke to Knight. Other media, such as the Brisbane Times article linked in the opening paragraph, replicated the error. Techwired duly reported 90 per cent of students do not like reading the newspaper, despite Ben Grubb hearing it was only “a majority” in an interview with the professor.

But if is not 90 percent now, it will be in another year or two. Digital transmission is here and the Techwired podcast I listened to was excellent quality. Knight praised Ben Grubb for what he was doing. But the QUT professor made the point while it was all well and good for Grubb to interview him, he (Grubb) would need support if he was to do a story about something more complicated, say, on organised crime on the Sunshine Coast.

Knight says stories like these require investigative journalism that is mainly the province of newspapers. But if hardly any young journalists are reading them, then the take-up rate is even smaller among the young generally. In 2008, The Pew Research Center found the internet overtook print for the first time as an outlet for national and international news. Newspapers in most parts of the world are contracting or dying as their readership gets older.

In Brisbane, the Courier-Mail has a readership of 646,000 of which almost half are over 50. The Fairfax Brisbane Times is digital only. In Melbourne Andrew Bolt is openly predicting the death of The Age in “a few years”. It and sister paper the Sydney Morning Herald are part of the crumbling Fairfax Digital empire which is rapidly turning into the sick man of Australian media despite its reverse takeover by the toecutters at Rural Press.

Although the Fairfax mastheads might disappear, Gen-Y will continue to read digital imprints. Professor Knight said his study reflected cultural bias which in his view “results from using computers and not accepting print”. That is not wholly a bad thing. The State of the News Media 2006 report found that the Internet is often the richest source of information and is quickly gaining ground as a source for news. I got an inkling last year of how young journos get their news at the 2008 Future of Journalism conference when two out of the three students who spoke said they never read newspapers. Professor Knight accepts universities cannot reverse the trend but he added, “we can require journalist students to address all forms of media.”


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