Thursday, December 8, 2011

The 'Digital Public Sphere' and the 'Indifference of 25 Year Olds'

by Jeff Stanger

Building on posts by AP's Jonathan Stray and NYU's Clay Shirky, we look at just how digital the "digital public sphere" really is, using data from the Pew Research Center on Americans' use of various media for news about national and international issues.

Some assumptions about the level of digitization of the news and information ecosystem underlie recent posts by Jonathan Stray of the Associated Press and Clay Shirky of NYU. While I agree with the assumptions, they nevertheless warrant closer inspection.

Is the "Digital Public Sphere" Actually Digital?

In "What should the digital public sphere do?" Stray, interactive technology editor at AP and Knight News Challenge winner, contemplates the functions of a public information ecosystem empowered by digital communication technology: "journalism, social media, search engines, libraries, Wikipedia, and parts of academia." But this begs an important baseline question: Even 17-plus years into the networked digital age, is the public sphere actually digital? It's entirely possible that aspects of the public sphere or subgroups of participants limited by digital access (see Susan Crawford's important New York Times opinion piece from this week), technological aptitude or, as we'll look at here, media preference, are only increasingly digital or in some cases not digital at all. Can we freely apply the "digital" modifier to the "public sphere" as Stray does?

Stray's #1 function of such a system — information about public issues — is a good starting point for our test. Although the public has adopted digital technology at a high rate — eight in ten have internet access of some kind, and two-thirds have high-speed connections in their homes — if all they're doing online is holiday shopping, paying bills, and streaming the latest Mad Men, then that wouldn't make for a digital public sphere so much as a personal digital utility. Are citizen using the internet to gather information on public issues?

To answer that question, let's take a look at national survey data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Pew has regularly asked members of the public which media sources they use to gets news about national and international issues. Below are trend data from a January 2011 report to which I've added Pew's most recent measurement from their September 2011 report:

The Increasingly Digital Public Sphere

Source for news on national and international issues (all Americans 18+)

Roll over years to show data. Drag several years to zoom the chart.
Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (January 2011, September 2011)

There is considerable evidence in these data to suggest that at least the basic information gathering aspect of the public sphere is going digital. But what's interesting is that it's a recent and rapid changeover. The emerging digital public sphere is only 3-4 years old, not nearly as old as the digital era itself. Only since 2008 have large percentages of the American public begun using the internet as a source of news and information on national and international issues. In 2001, well into the digital revolution when over half of the population was already online, the internet still ranked last (13%) as a news medium behind television, newspapers and radio. As late as 2007, less than a quarter of the population (24%) used the internet as a primary source of news. Something happened between 2007 and 2008 that pushed the internet ahead of newspapers and enabled it to start closing the gap with television (still the most-used news source). I'll hypothesize that the iPhone, other smartphones, and the mobile internet happened. These developments put the internet experience in millions of pockets. But whatever the reason, I think it's now safe to begin calling our public dialogue at least increasingly digital, if not yet fully digital.

On the "Indifference of 25 Year Olds"

In a rebuttal of Dean Starkman's Columbia Journalism Review critique of prominent "future of news" thinkers, Clay Shirky examines the changing position of established media institutions in a digital environment. He sends a warning shot over newspapers' bow: "No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25 year olds." He advises them to "find the smartest 25 year olds you know, and try to convince them that now would be a pretty good time to start working on Plan B."

I don't disagree with this advice, but there are some underlying assumptions that we can test. In particular, are Shirky's figurative "25 year olds" actually indifferent to newspapers and other non-digital sources of news and information on public issues? If yes, how much so and when did it happen? What about other age groups? We'll use the same Pew data broken down by age to look for answers:

A Growing Indifference Among 18-64 Year Olds

Source for news on national and international issues (by age)


18-29 year olds

30-49 year olds

50-64 year olds


Whether they foreshadow the extinction of an entire medium is beyond the scope of my post, but the data clearly show that young adults are increasingly turning to the internet for news on national and international issues and away from non-digital sources. The internet is now the top news source among 18-29 year olds (65% rate it as a source, ahead of television, newspapers and radio). But like the total population trends, the emergence of the internet as a news medium for Americans under 30 is fairly recent. In 2001, only 18% of 18-29 year olds identified the internet as a primary news source on national and international issues, well behind television (72%) and newspapers (36%). The internet didn't pass newspapers for good and set its sights on television until 2006-2007. The spike between 2007 and 2008 we observed in the total population numbers is particularly large among young adults.

There is a similar if slightly less pronounced trend in older age groups. The internet is now the second most used source for news on national and international issues among 30-49 year olds (51%) and 50-64 year olds (36%). Among 50-64 year olds, the internet surpassed newspapers for the first time in 2011. Americans 65 and over are not surprisingly the least digital of news consumers, but the internet has been making modest but steady gains among this older set since 2007.

It's not headline news to say the internet's gain is newspaper's loss. However, the extinction prediction aside, the data suggest that Shirky may have actually understated the gravity of the situation for newspapers. It's not just young people that are growing indifferent to print news; it's everyone under 65. Only 24% of 18-29 year olds rely on newspapers, 25% of 30-49 year olds, and 33% of 50-64 year olds. Since 2003, there has been a strong downward trend in newspaper use among all age groups, although it has been relatively stable for those over 65 since 2005. Digital information consumption is also chipping away at television, but TV is still the most popular news source among all but 18-29 year olds, and use has been fairly resilient among Americans over 50.

To revisit our questions:

Is Stray's "digital public sphere" actually digital? Increasingly so, but only very recently.

Are Shirky's "25 year olds" growing indifferent to newspapers? Yes, and so are a lot of others.

Comments welcome...