It’s news when they say it’s news

I had the privilege to be the guest of Nancy Kirby’s media class at North Central College in Naperville this week. I always enjoy speaking to college students because it gives me the opportunity to learn firsthand the media habits of our young adults.

What I found with this group was that young adults, in general, are very much interested in what’s happening in their world, keeping in mind that their world may have a different view than our world. The majority of the class are still tuned in to and seek out news, but how they do that has significantly changed.

As I had expected, few read newspapers or watch TV news. Many get news through the use of  Google, Yahoo or various RSS feeds. More are going mobile in their news gathering. Many more find and pass along news through social networking.  In other words, the young sample I viewed acted as their own gatekeeper in obtaining their news.

But our discussions took us into the concern over the quality and credibility of the content they find. Many were concerned about how media — both mainstream and new age — produce content that can be trusted and credible. The concern about posting incorrect information for the sake of immediacy, correcting stories on the fly, or trusting stories from sites with a defined agenda.

I noted recent studies that show that news organizations that had trust and credibility in their print and on-air products will see that trust translate to online. Most of the class seemed to agree with that — that is good news for the traditional media.

However, this microscope of young readers may reveal the fatal flaw in the argument for online pay walls. While readers may trust your content, they are not necessarily loyal to your product. Google, Yahoo and RSS have made our sites simply dishes in a giant smorgasbord of content, and our young readers are selecting pieces from each dish to satisfy their news hunger.

So should you charge by the slice? Or charge the spoon that taps into your dish? I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I do think the industry needs to examine this pattern further before they rush to throw tollbooths in front of their sites.

It’s no longer news when you say it’s news. It’s news when the reader says so.

Addendum: It was also encouraging to also see a couple of members in the class who were still serious about getting into journalism after graduation. It’s a tough time in the industry right now, but it was refreshing to see there are still young people who have the idealism and tenacity to stick it through.

The Times of London last weekend had an article about this new flood of journalism grads into the marketplace. Although it was written for the British market, I believe this story should be read at every journalism school commencement ceremony, as it is encouraging but realistic. Here’s the link.

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