Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Digital Natives: More different than you think

This column originally was published in Editor & Publisher Magazine and is being reprinted with permission. To subscribe to the magazine so you can see the full array of industry coverage when it first appears in print, click here.

The French, as Steve Martin once cracked, have a different word for everything. But a recent ground-breaking study of modern media consumers by BVA, a French market research firm, resonates perfectly in any language.

The research is important to anyone worried about the future of the newspaper business, because it demonstrates how profoundly next-generation consumers differ from the aging geezers (this writer included) who account for more than half of newspaper readership in the United States even though they represent barely 30% of the population.

The French study found that young people have utterly different attitudes than their elders with respect to such seminal concepts as, say, institutional authority. Further, those attitudes are diametrically opposed to the values, expectations and economic underpinnings that suffuse the newspaper business.

The almost complete disconnect between generations means editors and publishers have lots to learn – tout de suite – about modern consumers, if they hope to preserve the long-term sustainability and value of their franchises. But it won’t be easy. Because learning to think, speak and act in this new and alien paradigm is even harder than learning French.

In an intensive, three-month study of the media and social habits of 100 consumers between the ages of 18 and 24, BVA found that this generation, which it dubbed “Digital Natives,” doesn’t trust authority, doesn’t want anyone telling them what to think and doesn’t like to pay full retail prices.

The study first was reported by my friend Frédéric Filloux, a media strategist and consultant in Paris who graciously allowed me to quote from the English abstract he posted at his blog, MondayNote.Com.

The key findings of the research – and the implications for the newspaper business – are:

Eroded Trust

Finding: Digital Natives don’t trust politicians, social institutions, the media or corporations. Rather, they rely largely on themselves and their peers to decide what to think, what to do and what to buy.

Implications: This pretty much rejects everything newspapers stand for, inasmuch as editors and publishers traditionally have operated on the theory that readers regard them as authorities who report authoritatively on the activities of other authorities – and that advertisers pay big bucks to leverage the authority of the newspaper for their brands.

Primal Screens

Finding: A generation raised on television screens, computer screens, game screens and phone screens – often all at the same time – can’t get enough information fast enough, leading to frenzied multitasking and attenuated attention spans. The busier Digital Natives get, the less they concentrate, the less they think and the less they absorb.

Implications: Newspapers are the antithesis of the empty info-calories often preferred by Digital Natives.


Finding: Digital Natives view life as a game of outsmarting authority to beat a system they disdain. Whether catching up on the news or shopping for a car, Digital Natives enjoy the challenge of acquiring and manipulating information as much as the outcome to which it leads.

Implication: Newspapers are accustomed to delivering news and advertising in a tidy, trusted, take-it-or-leave-it package that requires scant additional effort. This suggests the most satisfying way a Digital Native can interact with a newspaper is to argue with it. While that might be fun for the Digital Native, it plays hell with the credibility of the press.

Never Pay Retail

Finding: “The Digital Native enjoys using all tools available in his arsenal to outsmart the merchant system and to find the best deal,” research director Edouard Le Marechal told Filloux. “He doesn’t trust the brand. Like in a game, the brand is the enemy to defeat.”

Implication: Taken to its logical conclusion, this finding suggests the obsolescence of advertising as we know it.

The Dilemma

The sobering findings of this study represent both a dilemma and a challenge to newspapers.

If newspapers tried to change themselves sufficiently to appeal to the Digital Natives, they would be forced to seriously compromise, if not abandon, their core strengths and values. The resulting products in all likelihood would turn off a large number of their most faithful readers.

If newspaper publishers don’t develop products and services to appeal to young consumers, however, they run the risk of wasting away as anachronisms that eventually become so irrelevant and unprofitable that they are forced to close their doors.

At a time the newspaper industry ought to be desperately seeking fresh insights into the markets they serve and the consumers they hope to serve, it is troubling to have to look overseas for the kind of research that should be under way here.

Publishers need to invest in learning everything they can about the Digital Natives on this side of the Atlantic so they can start developing successful solutions to see to the health of their franchises. N'est-ce pas?

© 2010 Editor & Publisher Magazine


Blogger Scott Ruecker said...

"..Taken to its logical conclusion, this finding suggests the obsolescence of advertising as we know it."

Utterly and completely, it is the inverse of advertising as we know it. Because people can communicate so easily and quickly word of mouth is going to reign king once again..and forever.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Baron said...

This appears to be not so much a matter of journalism or the Internet influence as it is the perennial attitude of adolescents and young adults to the existing adult world. Certainly you had this attitude in your twenties, mistrust of authority, doubt in existing institutions, etc. Now it is merely projected onto the current technological landscape.

12:57 PM  
Blogger -30- said...

Wait, did you say 100 consumers?!? 100? As in one hundred?

Now, color me a big fan in the digital natives are different camp, but come on, a study of 100 is meaningless.

I have no doubt I can find you 100 people that have eroded trust, I'd look no further than the nearest tea party rally. For 100 frenzied multitaskers that have attenuated attention spans, I need only look as far as any weekend soccer field, parents with multiple children would surely fall into the aforementioned group. For types that "never pay retail," why not try used car dealers, financiers, advertising reps and possibly venture capitalists.

Gamemanship, well, where could there be better examples of people who view life as a game of outsmarting authority to beat a system they disdain than a newspaper newsroom?

I'm sorry, I don't see how such sweeping generalities can be drawn from such a small sample. It's misguided.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Howard Owens said...

Define "digital native" and further collate what percentage of any cohort is "digital native."

12:23 AM  
Blogger MrMediaPro said...

Alan, come on, these so called "findings" have been known for years. Couple that with the fact newspapers have totally missed the opportunity to communicate and embrace this demographic.
I continue to scratch my head in amazement over the arrogance and ignorance displayed by legacy newspaper publishers. What were they thinking; this whole digital thing was just a fad? Craig's List was just some silly start up company?

4:23 AM  
Blogger nageek said...

Interesting piece and it reminds me of a similar article i read on Poynter Online http://bit.ly/cW0bX1, which used a source that also wrote a series of articles for NiemanLab as well (though that link escapes me).

Anyway, when hearing things young people don't like about mainstream news sources, it's difficult not to think of those 'news' outlets they are following. Shows like 'The Daily Show' or 'Colbert Report' which basically make their money doing lots of things young people want. Primarily pointing out the flaws of mainstream media.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Alec said...

Interesting. I manage an alternative paper. We've been in publication for over 30 years and our revenues are up over 20% from last year. Our paper is independently owned, weekly and we have more cume readers than the competing 160-year old daily.

I know that our story is unique, but our engagement in the community is too. To the "digital natives" who distrust authority, we are a partner. We are a partner in advocating for local, non-corporate businesses. We sponsor bicycle activists, anarchist gardners, and the local entrepreneurial awards. We advocate for local agriculture which the anti-globalism activists and the farmers like equally. We have made almost no investment in social media, contrary to the rest of industry. Currently, our strategy is to publish the best newspaper we can. Crazy right?

Our generation (I'm 30), and those that are younger than me don't trust authority, corporate hegemony, etc. But, our position as a community newspaper, with a sense of mission to improve our community, with local ownership, has been excellent business for us.

So, the medium isn't dead, it's being used wrong, and it's in the wrong hands. And I know those 3000 word articles are being read by young and old.

By the way, 18-25 year olds have never really read newspapers very much.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Janet DeGeorge said...

You wrote the “Digital Native,” doesn’t trust authority, doesn’t want anyone telling them what to think and doesn’t like to pay full retail prices.

Sounds a lot like the "natives" of Haight Ashbury...and if you don't know what that means, you are not enough of a GEEZER...

Is the Digital Native really any change from generations past? To quote Socrates "The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise....”

The only thing that has changed is the method through which they chatter…

Janet DeGeorge

10:47 AM  
Blogger Andrew Kloak said...

Eroded trust in traditional institutions like newspapers. There are more layers to this statement. It's not exactly that simple. Hey, even Google acknowledges that they won't have anything to lead people to without strong news gathers and analysts of the current news of the day. The only group that can really do that is newspapers-traditional or alternative. They are still in the position to provide the best on what's happening in the current day. I'm in my mid-40's and have read newspaper for at least three decades.

Those that see the changes coming will thrive in newspapers. Those that are compliant and cautionary won't.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Donatello said...

Late in responding to this post, but I've been out for a while.

Your phrase "empty info-calories" sounds to me like condescension from a grousing old editor. Just because a reader isn't interested in a 7,500-word soliloquy does not mean that the information consumed in smaller portions is insubstantial. USA TODAY found great success in distilling good reporting down into stories that don't take an hour to consume.

It's the equivalent of dim sum versus an entree. You can be nourished either way. It all depends on your tastes.

1:55 PM  

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