In news from Brisbane in the last few days, a QUT study has found that most student journalists don’t read newspapers. The problem with newspapers, say the students, is that 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.
But I need to begin the story with the recent past. Last Monday, 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 full results of the survey are not yet in the public domain. Professor Knight intends to present them to the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre annual conference in New Delhi in July. However the results summary from the media release showed two important findings. First was the fact that 95 percent of them enjoyed keeping up with news - as you’d hope and expect with journalists. But the second fact seemed to contradict the first: more than half of those surveyed read a newspaper “once a week or less often.”
Though at that stage I hadn’t read the release, 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 fairly bleak outlook for newspapers, though said 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 in passing and pointed accusingly at his audience who, he said, now 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 properly”. The ABC article said, incorrectly, the survey found 90 per cent of students don’t like reading newspapers. Whereas, what Knight actually said in the release 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.” Many of 90 per cent does not equal 90. The actual figure was 60 per cent.
However 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. It would appear that none of the articles in the Brisbane Times, the ABC or Techwired were sub-edited.
But I don’t want to gripe too much, I also make mistakes as I don't have the luxury of a sub-editor. And as for the number quoted in the articles, well if is not 90 percent now, it will be in another few years. Digital transmission is the way forward and the Techwired podcast I listened to was excellent quality. Knight rightly praised Ben Grubb for what he was doing. But the QUT professor did make the point that 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.
What Knight is saying is that stories like these are difficult to do, and often require investigative journalism that is mainly the province of newspapers. But if hardly any young journalists are reading them, then it is likely 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. And newspapers in most parts of the world are contracting or dying as their readership gets older.
Here in Brisbane, the Courier-Mail has a total readership of 646,000 of which almost half are over 50. Its rival the Fairfax Brisbane Times is digital only. Meanwhile, down in Melbourne Andrew Bolt is openly predicting the death of The Age in “a few years”. He might be right. It and its 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.
Yet although the Fairfax mastheads might disappear, Gen-Y will continue to read their 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 a personal 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.”