Can Long-Form Journalism Survive our Changing Morning Routine?

From the moment we roll out of bed in the morning until we walk out the front door to start our work-day, we consume an astonishing amount of news, music, information, and other media content.

It wasn’t always this way.  In the span of just a few years, we have replaced the comparative tranquility of easing out of bed with the clock radio and skimming the newspaper for the day’s headlines to today where we juggle numerous devices to scan what happened while we were asleep (email, social media, news headlines, and much more) and we start to plan for the day ahead (weather, traffic, etc.).  It’s an endless chase to stay informed by always being ‘plugged in’ as we fear missing out on any small thing.  And it’s now starting to reshape our expectations for our news needs in the mornings before we even properly start our day.

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Mornings before digital devices

The changing taste in how people want to hear and consume their morning news was one of the key findings from a recent study I led for a top-market US Public Radio station.  This NPR News station airs Morning Edition, the top rated morning show on radio, which nationally reaches more than 13 million listeners each week.  The three-part study consisted of an online survey to better understand their audience needs and expectations, a two-day morning-media diary which was used to track what devices and sources people used from the time they wake up to the time they start their work or school day, as well as a review of the local Nielsen Audio PPM broadcast ratings.

What was most striking about the study results was not just what was being said in the surveys and the media diaries, but who was asking for a change – public radio listeners, a group who depend on, crave for, and value long-form news journalism – which is the unique selling point of public radio.  When this audience voices a desire to hear something new that focuses on the headlines, on “what I need to know right now” in a much shorter, high-impact form, asking to hear “what I need to know today to better understand what I will face tomorrow”, along with the basics – the weather, traffic, the stock market, etc. – then you can arguably point to the beginnings of a massive shift in appetite for news consumption.

While the desire for the sound and feel of NPR/Public Radio remains strong, the audience is starting to point to a different model that is more in-tune with their activities at the start of the day.  It was telling in the morning diaries filled out by the study’s respondents that beyond NPR (as well as the New York Times to some degree), that there was very little long-form journalism consumed in the mornings, even by these loyal public radio listeners.  There simply isn’t time, given their behavior and the array of gadgets and sources to check.

This big shift in news appetite points to an irony for NPR and Public Radio.

NPR’s long record of success stems from its quest to provide in-depth, quality news, while following both the critical stories of the day and tracking complex issues over the long-term.  Public Radio built this success at the same time that much of the rest of the news media resorted to hollow sound-bites, providing little to inform and educate.  Now, listeners are indicating they want the short-form, but they want  it to retain that public radio feel.

To be fair, NPR is already embracing this challenge with its efforts with member stations to change the show clocks to its two premier shows. NPR’s desire to have different clocks in the morning and the afternoon is smart considering how differently people use media throughout the day.  But arguably, the clock changes alone won’t help bridge the gap to satisfy the audience’s changing needs and routines.  On both the national level and the local level, the content can be changed to better fit the digitally-influenced morning appetite for news.  Looking further into the data, there is also a second major finding that speaks to morning activities and the ever-increasing demand to hear fresh, new content, throughout the morning given radio’s capacity to be everywhere.

As almost any devoted Morning Edition listener will tell you, the show is two-hours long and is normally repeated at least once or more depending on where you listen in the US.  Hearing the same stories repeated (either from the network or at the local level) on the same morning was the top reason for tune-out and led those listeners to go elsewhere, away from their local public station.  This is not a result of listening for more than two hours at a time in the morning, although that does happen, but instead it’s more a function of our uniquely and ever-increasingly busy mornings – in other words, multiple occasions of listening across the morning.

For example, a person might wake up around 5am and hear the show as they get ready in the morning to make their way to the gym or do yoga.  Then they might hear the show in the kitchen as they get the kids and family ready to start the day.  They might hear it again in the car on the way to work or school, and they might listen again, likely via streaming, in the workplace.  This means a person might hear the show (and quite possibly the same story two or three times) in three or four different environments (bedroom/kitchen/car/workplace) and through different channels (radio, computer, or mobile device)  This provides a very unique challenge to programming in the mornings and it points to the likelihood that a sizable part of the audience will likely hear the same story over several occasions of listening.  Given the numerous occasions of listening that are possible, listeners might stay engaged longer if the content was fresh.

Once again, the media diaries highlighted the unique companionship that radio provides unlike any other media device – being preset in every morning activity – though seemingly that’s still a surprise to some.  But radio faces the same battle as every other media choice – that once you lose the attention of your audience, they will simply go elsewhere to find what they want.  It is hard to imagine a time when the value of NPR and Public Radio has been as high as it is now, given today’s news choices.  No one would fault an industry that holds onto its ideals in a business world that is being completely disrupted by itself and new competitors, but changes in how we use media are happening right now, in every demographic and during every part of the day.  Let’s hope that public radio can find a way to balance what makes it distinct and so valuable to so many and meet our changing needs and routines for consuming news.

Weekly Review: The web gets ready for its 25th anniversary

A relatively quiet week compared to the quick pace of change established so far this year.  Facebook’s acquisition of What’sApp is still generating waves of reaction. Surprisingly, while WhatsApp has 200 million users worldwide, there are only 7 million users within the US, which puts the headline-making 230% growth into context.

Elsewhere, the Web turns 25 this month.  The anniversary marks the release in 1989 of a paper written by Sir Tim Berners-Lee who proposed an “information management” system that later became the architectural structure of the web.  The upcoming anniversary has been covered here in a 2-minute clip by the BBC and the impact of the web in the US has already been covered extensively by Pew Internet.

Given Nielsen’s vast scope of media measurement services, it’s well worth paying attention when CEO Mitch Barnes speaks of the changes he/they see coming in video consumption – because you know they have the data to support their predictions.  Staying with the data theme, Charlene Weisler, shed some light on Project Blueprint, which is causing some waves now that it has some investment from ESPN.  The cross-measurement project consists of a mix of comScore’s hybrid online & mobile measurement, Nielsen (once Arbitron) Portable People Meters for TV, Radio and Out-of-home, as well as 5 million top box data households from an array of sources. This magnitude of resources demonstrates what it takes to move ahead in the field of cross-platform measurement.

News organisations, who are already seeing declining audiences in the early evenings as people’s news tastes have either splintered across many more sources or they might be returning from work already news-saturated, might have another competitor to worry about. Slate is getting serious about a daily evening podcast.  After a rocky start, podcasts are quickly moving into the mainstream with consumers becoming increasingly savvy, not to mention there is some great content out there.

Meanwhile, this week in the US, many media researchers will be paying attention to the latest tech usage trends from the Infinite Dial.  For the first time, the annual study is being co-presented by Edison Research and Triton Digital – a good thing in my opinion.  Few will be surprised to hear that 1/3 of US adults tune into Pandora each month, as Triton’s own monthly rankers show.  Still, the webinar is well worth a listen to – so sign up!

Five Media Predictions for 2014

The start of a new year provides a one-time, but too-short a moment to dream big and look ahead to the next twelve months.

I’m excited about 2014, not just on a personal and career front, but I can’t stop wondering where things will turn next for how we use media.

Below, I have listed five predictions for the year ahead.  Some of these are my own, others are inspired from elsewhere and duly credited.

  • Let’s hope that the media industry can finally move beyond the upcoming year being labelled as ‘this is the year of mobile‘.  Mobile has arrived already.  In the US, leading content providers in the digital space, such as ESPN, NPR, and The Guardian, are already delivering half (or very close to) of their digital traffic through mobile.  But, frustratingly, there are few players in media who share an honest story when it comes to mobile growth.  Yes, it’s growing with triple-figure percentage-growth, but that’s only because it started from zero not so long ago.  I’m being naive to expect distributors to speak honestly about how much of that amazing growth is in terms of more telling measures – such as persons reached or as a comparison to traditional audience routes, but the entire industry suffers when we’re not acknowledging that broadcast dollars, pounds, and euros are being currently replaced by digital pennies.  Rapid mobile growth does not mean that budgets will be balanced and profits are assured in the years to come.  When we see a direct replacement in revenue from broadcast to digital, then we can more honestly say that ‘this is the year of mobile’.  It won’t be 2014, but the year ahead will see us all move closer to that pivotal and game-changing landmark.
  • The iPad is not yet four years old, though its impact on home computing has been swift and dramatic.  While Apple’s competitors were slow to respond at first, the marketplace is now full of worthy alternatives.  Consumers have a choice to make: a laptop (or desktop) or a tablet?  In 2014, I expect many consumers will start to consider the second choice: what OS (Operating System) am I going to use?  Apple? Android? Windows? Or something else – Linux or Blackberry, etc. While many of the most popular apps offer the same experience, regardless of platform, many of us live in different environments across our own devices – a Windows laptop in the home or at work, an Android smartphone, and an Apple iPad was my own situation until a few weeks ago and it’s probably not a unique one.  Organizing our digital lives is already complicated, but having all devices within one system will make things much easier.
  • Depending on where you sit, you might be feeling quietly confident, economically speaking, about the year ahead.  That’s what the media sector is looking at right now and how its approaching 2014.  Given that things move so fast now in media circles, companies no longer have the option to grow and design products to grow organically – else a competitor is sure to swoop in.  So rather than create something new, companies acquire.  The year ahead might see many in media move from ‘wait and see’ to ‘act now or get left behind’. While this might bode well for consumer choice, companies need to get these big strategic decisions right.  Relatively new players such as Instagram and Snapchat are positioned to do well.  Other entities such as Netflix and Amazon are already moving into creating their own content to ensure they are ahead of the chasing pack. 2014 is going to be a pivotal year for many media entities and a fascinating one to watch.
  • Journalism enjoyed a wild ride in 2013.  The likely result by the end of this year is that many of us will consume news and information very differently than we do now.  Too many big things have happened in the past year, as Matthew Ingram points out, for there not to be some seismic changes very soon.  I have to believe Jeff Bezos has something transformative in mind for the Washington Post.  I cannot imagine the eBay billionaire making a $250 million investment into a brand new news venture not translating it into a massive change in investigative journalism.  And I am excited that an app such as Circa is getting attention and am hopeful that as a mobile-first platform, it can help show the rest of the industry how to “rethink how we consume news on a mobile platform, rather than just re-purposing or redesigning existing content”. All of these events and more will make journalism a fascinating area to watch and experience in the year ahead.
  • For our own sake and well-being, I believe that 2014 will be the year that we collectively realize it’s OK to miss out and go unplugged.  This is not a new idea.  And this movement is not just limited to how we consume media – there’s the Slow Food movement, the Go-Local movement, and more.  It all speaks to backing away from mindless and rapid consumption and re-balancing our hectic lives.  For media, our inability to break away from our screens is already a source of ridicule. We’re seeing it happen already as people start to unplug from the constant slew of updates and take back their own privacy by opting out of Facebook.  But there’s also growing awareness of what you might miss around you – your own children playing, your partner irritated at the lack of attention, not to mention our diminishing attention spans. It points to a re-calibration in the year ahead, realizing that technology has greatly altered our lives permanently and now we need to change and adapt to different relationships and behaviors.

I could list many more here, and some such as the rapid changes in advertising merit being the topic of a future post.  

But now it’s your turn: what are your media predictions for 2014?