Category Archives: consumption

What a News Consumer Wants

What exactly is it that drives people to consume news information? If we can answer that, I would argue, then we open a new space of possibility for creating new media products, and for optimizing existing ones. As Google’s first commandment states: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” I adopt this point of view here and will consider other perspectives (e.g. business or content producers) in future posts. In this post I really want to get at the underlying needs, motivations, or habits that drive news consumption.

First, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the “How” of news consumption and the “Why” of news consumption. How news is consumed is largely attributable to the medium and technology of presentation (e.g. paper, radio, TV, internet). The context and form-factor of the technology also matters: the way that people consume news across different devices has been shown to vary over the course of the day, and consumption of news on tablets exhibits different patterns than consumption on other devices. Certainly online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have changed how people are exposed to and consume news. These are all technologies that facilitate news consumption, and bias it in their own ways as their unique affordances differentially enable, place constraints on, and influence behavior. The why of news consumption is more fundamental though, since understanding the underlying needs and motivations for consuming news can drive new mechanisms for the how of consumption. Going back to a user-centered design philosophy, ideally, the how amplifies the why, and the why informs the how.

Of course, why people consume news or media is not invariant across people or contexts. So there’s not bound to be a single user model that describes all people at once. For starters, demographic factors such as age and gender have been linked to different patterns of consumption (e.g. younger people tend to consume news more for the sake of escapism or passing time, women tend to be less interested in news on science and technology). This necessitates thinking about information niches and that needs and motives may vary over time and context. For instance, social context (e.g. co-viewing) can influence people to watch television news for longer. Individual differences also exist between people: personality traits such as extraversion and openness have been linked to both interest in politics and public affairs, as well as exposure to such related news. Considering all of the moderating factors that influence why someone might consume news (i.e. demographics, context, personality, …) how could products be designed to appeal to any of these niches? What does a news product for introverts look like? How should it work differently? 

Since the 1940’s communications and journalism scholars have been developing a theoretical framework that came to be known as Uses and Gratifications (U&G), which attempts to explain why people seek out and consume media. What are the gratifications that people receive from various kinds of media or types of content which help to satisfy their underlying social and psychological needs? Some of the earliest studies looked at why people consumed radio news, and some of the most recent look at internet technologies (e.g. I have looked at news commenting through this lens). U&G theory attempts to explain how/why people select their media, as well as how concentrated the attention is that they allocate (e.g. casually attending to a report for entertainment or to pass time is different than goal-oriented information seeking). Some limitations of the theory are (1) that it assumes an active user that is making selection decisions (though sometimes these calcify into habits), and (2) that the typologies of needs and motivations are built on self-reported information, instead of observational data. This second limitation is perhaps quite important, as research has shown that people over-report their interest in international news by a factor of 3 as compared to their actual news browsing behavior. So, just a quick caveat that, ideally, user needs and motivations should be triangulated and validated based on observations of behavior in addition to self-reports.

U&G proffers a typology of gratifications which help explain why people consume news. Those listed below are taken from Miller and Ruggiero and include:

  • Informational/Surveillance: finding out about relevant events and conditions in immediate surrounding, society, and the world; seeking advice on practical matters, or opinion and decision choices; satisfying curiosity and general interest; learning, self-education
  • Personal Identity: finding reinforcement for personal values; finding models of behavior; identifying with media actors; gaining insight into one’s self
  • Integration and Social Interaction: insight into circumstances of others including social empathy; identifying with others and gaining a sense of belonging; finding a basis for conversation and social interaction; enabling connection with family, friends, society
  • Entertainment/Diversion: escaping, relaxing, cultural or aesthetic enjoyment, filling time, emotional release, sexual arousal

You might ask yourself which news products address any of these motives better or worse? For instance, getting news on Facebook makes integration and social interaction motives very salient and easy for the user; watching Jon Stewart ties together entertainment and news effectively.

But still there is the underlying question of what are the driving psychological needs that lead to these categories of gratifications being sought through the media. For this we can turn to a theory of motivation developed over the last 40 years called Social Determination Theory; here’s a nice book on the subject. The theory postulates that there are three main drivers of intrinsic motivation: (1) autonomy, (2) competence, and (3) social-relatedness. Autonomy is about providing people with choices – the more choices people have the more in control they feel. Competence is about helping people to see the relationship between their behavior and some desired outcome; feeling competent is about taking on a challenge and meeting it. How could news products better help people feel autonomous or competent? Those products would be hits. The last driver is social-relatedness which is about people feeling connected to other people; social networks are already doing a pretty good job of satisfying that underlying psychological need.

Beyond psychological needs though, there may even be a biological driver for news consumption. In 1996 Pamela Shoemaker argued in a Journal of Communication paper that the human desire to surveil is evolutionarily adapted to help detect deviances or threats in the environment; humans that could surveil better were more likely to survive because they could avoid threats and thus reproduce. However, this hypothesis still needs to be tested empirically to see if people attend more to news that is more deviant (though it does seem plausible). What has been tested empirically, via a big-data analysis by information scientists Fang Wu and Bernardo Huberman, is how human attention orients to novel information and that that attention naturally decays over time according to a mathematical function. Indeed, for the site they found that the half-life for an item was, on average, 69 minutes, which suggests a natural time-scale (though site dependent) at which human attention fades.

There is a wide palette of options for thinking about new ways of engaging people in news information: context, demographics, personality, uses & gratifications, psychological needs, and biological drivers for novel information. There are likely many new (or existing) news products that can leverage this typology to personalize and make sure people are getting what they came for out of their media experience. And, to make the job even easier, research has also shown that people enjoy incidental exposure to news information. So, even if you initially motivate people to engage the media in one way (e.g. social relatedness), they will likely still enjoy incidental exposure to other news information.

The Journalism of Awareness

In The Elements of Journalism Kovach and Rosenstiel call it the “Awareness Instinct,” that basic human drive to know something about what’s going on beyond our direct experience. Sure, the gold standard for journalists is to give people the information they need to make the decisions that are important to themselves, their families, and their society, but in our attention starved culture can we settle for something less grandios? Where deep understanding and time-consuming sensemaking of an issue can’t be achieved there is still awareness; a recognition of the issue. And this awareness facilitates the human need to build common ground and community by allowing us to talk about news events with others. That is, common ground around a shared awareness of news allows us to build social connections with others in the community, to relate to others through a shared understanding. So, while some may think that merely being aware of a news event is paltry in comparison to really deeply understanding it, it does indeed carry with it great value. How do we enable awareness for news information?

Storytelling is one way to take information and make it interesting, relevant, and engaging to an audience. A way to make the significant matter to people. A way to raise awareness for a deeper issue by telling a good story. Another approach is to take raw data or information and to make it engaging through interaction. Games, information visualization, and other interactive data driven applications fit into this latter area. In this sense, the journalism of awareness can fully embrace new media as a vector for raising awareness for issues in the news, even if this new media falls short of that gold standard of journalism.

Here are some examples of what I mean by the Journalism of Awareness:

Online news quizzes of the sort found on facebook, for one, serve to raise awareness for news information. I think the quiz mechanic gets lambasted undeservingly for being “too simple” or “not interactive.” It’s raising awareness for news information without getting deep. That’s OK. If you get something wrong, you were still exposed to the quiz question and have a chance to go back afterwards and read the original news item if you care to. The downside is, if you’re not interested in news to begin with chances are you won’t go out of your way to try and complete a news quiz. The other downside is that someone has to sit there and write the questions and answers for these news quizzes: there’s a non-zero authoring cost.

Information visualization of the sort featured on Digg Labs is also a form of the journalism of awareness. These visualizations are dynamic and packed with information, but certainly don’t help you connect any dots. They’re there to provide an entry point to the information space, something that looks fun and visual to draw you in with enough of a snippet to get you interested in digging in. The upside here is that no authoring is necessary; Digg grabs the headline and first few sentences of the story as a summary automatically. There are LOTS of examples of calm, “ambient” visualizations which leave information scent in an environment to raise awareness.

Perhaps most promising for the journalism of awareness are those interactive games or applications that remediate already authored news content. This is because this opens up new avenues for engaging consumers and raising awareness for news using existing content. So for example we have the games featured on MSNBC’s NewsWare Site. While simple instantiations of classic arcade games, NewsBlaster and NewsBreaker use RSS news feeds to exposed the player of the game to pertinent headlines in the course of play. Another example of this is my own game, Audio Puzzler, a puzzle game which is played with short (~1 min) video snippets found online. The game is actually content agnostic, but when fed with news content such as video podcasts, it exposes people to the entire news video snippet in the course of solving the puzzle. These types of applications have the added benefit of engaging people who might not have otherwise been exposed to the information. This is in comparison to the quiz or info viz examples which presuppose an initial interest by the user. Perhaps in the course of playing, awareness is raised and questions spawned. That can help feed the awareness instinct and is perhaps a first step in getting people to actively engage the news.

Online Video Consumption Habits

I found another really interesting survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project about Online Video Consumption Habits. This survey looks at some of the trends surrounding the consumption of online video in the US including what types of content and behaviors arise around online video. Some of the take away points from the report:

  • News is the most popular genre of online video (except with youngr viewers aged 18-29); 10% of internet users say they watched news video yesterday (~16 million Americans)
    • News watching correlates with higher income and education
  • 19% of video viewers either rate video or post comments on video
    • If we intersect this with the prior number, then about 1.9% of internet users (~3 million people) rate or post comments on video each day. This is only an estimate since we can’t say for sure how much these two actually overlap; i.e. people who watch news may be more likely to rate or post comments
    • Younger people are twice as likely as older adults to post comments on video or rate video
  • 15% of internet users (~23 million) have sought political video content online; 2% (~3 million) do this on a typical day
    • Political content is popular among viewers who also rate or comment on video [This content is appealing to people who also want to have their opinion heard?]
  • Professional videos are preferred to amateur productions
  • Few people will pay to access online video
  • YouTube dominates online video, with about a third of the online audience for video; news websites account for only 6% of traffic to online video.
  • 3% of internet users (~ 5 million) watch educational video on a typical day