The rise and rise of the grey-haired social surfers

7 Sep

Many local newspaper editors hope their core readers will protect them from the threat of the internet.

In almost every region, these readers are Baby Boomers and their older brothers and sisters.

Advertising rate cards proudly boast their publications are aimed at Mr and Mrs Fifty-Plus – a restaurant-going, theatre-loving, holiday-booking couple who have a bit of cash to spend.

And the newspaper men and women serve up a daily diet of arson attacks, vandalism and stories about potholes; the content they believe will be repaid by the loyalty of this group.

Of course, the cannier exponents of the local hack trade know its intransigence will do nothing to slow the mass exodus of younger readers from newspapers to social, internet-based content.

But that’s okay.

As long as older readers are getting what they want.

What they don’t want is the content served up by social networks:  more lifestyle-orientated, more opinionated, less formal and less locally-focused (except when it’s hyper-local).

Don’t they?

In fact, the bad news from across The Pond is that – yes – actually, they do.

The dramatic findings of a new and credible survey explode the myth that social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are only used by young people.

On the contrary, our silver-haired elders are migrating like wildebeest – faster than any other demographic group – rapaciously gorging on social content.

Small wonder, then, that the local newspaper industry is haemorrhaging readers.

The study of more than 2,200 internet users was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates for the Pew Internet & American Life Project and stat geeks can read the actual report here.

The results are pictured here:

Researchers found that social media use had nearly doubled in the 50+ age group in just one year – from 22% in April 2009 to 42% in May of this year.

One in ten of that group used Twitter or a similar status update service either to post updates or to check other people’s updates.

Social network usage among the 18-29 age group rose but at nothing like the same rate – from 76% in April of last year to 86% this May.

A separate study from Pew found Americans aged 70-75 who use the internet grew from 26% in 2005 to 45% in 2009.

Yes, I know European readers might say: “So what? That only tells us about America.”

But, like Starbucks, Snicker bars and Jerry Springer, if it’s happening over there, you can bet it will be here soon – probably already is.

So what does all this mean?

Simply, that newspapers cannot expect anyone – even their core readers – to continue buying them unless they change.

There are some commendable examples of British local newspapers where this truth has been grasped.

The regional newspaper publisher Archant announced last week it was closing two of its Hertfordshire free titles, launching instead a series of weekly “newszines”, called Scene.

The managing editor said the move was “born out of necessity” because of the “economic and multimedia climate in which we operate”. It seems likely he was talking about the dwindling demand for local news the day after it has been reported on Twitter.

In his resignation blog, Marc Reeves, former editor of the Birmingham Post, wrote passionately about why the paper had to go from daily to weekly to ‘get under the skin’ of the news, rather trying to compete with the continually updating internet.

Changing doesn’t mean ‘doing’ more social media, pushing out content through social networks.

This won’t work.

It’s the content that needs to change, not the vehicle, and this means emulating the sort of content people are getting online, or doing what the internet doesn’t do very well. That’s another blog. Go figure.

What is certain is that, in the social internet age, where news and opinion can be sourced and delivered to our exact specifications at the tap of an iPhone, we are all changing our consumption habits.

Even the Boomers.


15 Responses to “The rise and rise of the grey-haired social surfers”

  1. Andy Chiles September 7, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

    Interesting blog. Are there any stats to show that older folks who have got involved with social media have turned away from local newspapers at the same time, or as a long-term result? Do you think it is the move to social media rather than online ad sites for cars/homes/jobs which have caused newspaper readers to drift away?

    • michaeltaggart September 9, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

      Hi Andy, very good questions. I did look around for studies linking (or not) increased social media usage among older people to decreasing paper buying. There is plently of evidence, especially in the US, that the rate of uptake of social media among older people is increasing and that the rate of increase is increasing. There is also plenty of evidence that, at exactly the same time, fewer older people are buying papers. And that decrease is increasing.

      Making a causal link between the two is more difficult to do, although it seems obvious there is some link between general internet use and newspaper decline. But I accept there might also be a general decline in need for newspapers.

      The reasons for this, I suppose, could be any or all of the following and more:

      1. People are less tied – both culturally and physically – to their localities.

      2. There are more money-men and women than news men and women at the top of the hack trade these days, which has caused the rise of ‘churnalism’ (ie filling newspapers with quick, easy stories placed by vested interests without any journalism having been done).

      3. 24 hour TV and radio.

      If these are the reasons, rather than the internet, then newspapers really are doomed.

      Can anyone out there point me to studies identifying (or disproving) specific causal links?

      To answer your second question, I’m not sure it’s useful any longer to differentiate between the internet/web/online and ‘social media’.

      Social is increasingly crowding out the rest. Online advertising is a case in point because it is becoming social these days. Try changing your Facebook status to ‘engaged’ and see how many ads you are suddenly shown for caterers, florists and the like. Twitter ads are written in the hope people will retweet them. Online TV watching is also becoming a social experience and, unlike the local newspaper industry, the TV networks seem to have grasped this. For example the makers of Mad Men know and exploit the fact that it has a social media culture around it. Google ‘double-screening’, which is the growing phonomenon of watching TV while tweeting. My point is that most, if not all of the internt will become social eventually.

  2. Nick Cloke September 7, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

    Interesting read Mike. Have been keeping an eye on your blog, but felt this was the first one where my comments could add any value!

    Totally agree that older readers are no longer a viable safety net for media.

    Lots of councils seem to have adult learning computer literacy classes well attended by older people and I know many residential care homes are now also training and encouraging their residents to use the Internet as a way to keep in touch with events and loved ones.

    It doesn’t just seem to be the media that are blind to this though! I’ve sat in many a meeting where I’ve had to argue that the assumption older people can’t, or won’t want to, access content online is out-dated (assuming it ever was correct) and sounds dangerously like ageist stereotyping.

    Two weeks ago I was on a course at Bramshill and, worryingly, a lot of police ‘Senior Leaders’ were of the same opinion. We had to present a hypothetical change comms proposal and some even had the cheek to criticise my group for using multi-channelled online comms, aimed not just at younger audiences, but as a way to reach older people too.

    So accepting that papers need to change, it seems to me that the ones surviving the digital revolution are those that are investing in investigative journalism – be that the NotW’s popularist ‘stings’ or the Telegraph’s political exposés – and those that are presenting an opinionated voice, preaching to the converted.

    An interesting landscape when people increasingly pick up or view output that reflects their views and doesn’t even pretend to be balanced (or even more worrying those biased tomes that claim to be middle-of-the-road). Perhaps this does reflect the ‘choose your output’ style of the Internet though?

    It seems to me though, that most of these ‘successful’ traditional media outlets are national. It leaves locals with a significant problem, whereby the geographical population is their defining factor, yet they don’t risk alienating potential readers with loaded commentary.

    I had a chat with a local newspaper group editor recently about where we thought this may lead. He thought it would be likely that the majority of local content would be served online, with the few local newspapers that survive aiming for readers wanting a more-sensationalist, tabloid approach to their local news.

    There was even incredibly un-PC speculation that office workers would want more balanced, speedy news delivered to their desktop and people working in non-office jobs where portability was more important would not be so bothered about ‘newer’ news, but would want a paper entertaining and relevant to their interest.

    Sounded very much like a class divide to me – nearly a taboo subject these days, particularly in the public sector – but, with the necessity of the private sector to effectively segment markets to maximise profit, I think we’d be foolish to overlook it.

    Where does that leave us, as media relations professionals, I wondered? Aside from increasing our own use of direct-distribution channels – something I think we’re all getting better at very quickly – and in terms of serving demands from media organisations, I think we’re facing a challenging and intense future.

    We’ll need to be incredibly quick and reactive to service the ever-increasing number of 24/7 online news outlets who need raw, factual information and corroboration; while at the same time attempting to provide fair comment and context to traditional media articles that are forced into becoming more sensationalist and unbalanced in order to strengthen their editorial tone of voice and tell their audience what they want to hear.

    Never a time, in my view, where statutorily-impartial outlets, like the BBC, were in greater need of protection and where media organisations that overstep the mark and fail to provide at least a semblance of balance are visibly held to account. Yet, worryingly, the political landscape seems to be shifting towards quite the opposite…

    [Reviewing this (rather-longer-than-intended) comment, I realise that this comes across quite negatively and is clearly extrapolating an outcome based on a couple of observations. It’s quite possible that things take a different path and I hope they do. I’d welcome yours or other’s feedback.]

    • michaeltaggart September 9, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

      Thanks Nick – a number of points there.

      I agree that public service professionals now need to quash this myth that older people or people from working class backgrounds don’t use the internet. Frankly, it’s rubbish and the numbers bear this out.

      You say that newspapers need to investigate more, which is similar to what Marc Reeves, the editor in my blog says. Yes, this will help but to me, it’s simpler than that. Newspapers just need to get their heads around the fact that in 2010, readers will no longer tolerate mundane news unless it is literally within three streets of their homes or work places. Unless they put more money into content, like investigations, they won’t be able to compete with the internet where interesting content is easily-sourced.

      In answer to where we are left in media relations: that phrase refers to the traditional media. We must now accept that we need to interact and represent ourselves online. Simples.

  3. Frankie Taggart September 8, 2010 at 5:55 am #

    Interesting stuff. It’s very important in this debate to separate the medium (errr…the media) and the product. I work for an organisation which sells news, unpackaged and in its purest form, to the media but also, increasingly, straight to the consumer via their phone or sites like Google and Yahoo. News has never been more popular, despite the decline of certain sections of the media.

    • michaeltaggart September 9, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

      Yep – we don’t cconsume news in pre-packaged, erm, packages anymore. It comes in easily consumed pieces. So maybe the packages are of no value. Of course the Times would disagree. It tells you that when you pay for its content, you are not paying for news or features (available for free all over the place). You’re paying for The Times, a shiny product, a brand.

      • Frankie Taggart September 13, 2010 at 8:36 am #

        Interesting piece here by the Observer’s John Naughton on the confusion of form and function. Puts the point I was trying to make much more eloquently:

  4. @ukcameraman September 8, 2010 at 8:57 am #

    Very interesting post. I work in the TV News industry, with a (un)healthy interest in local news. At 43 years old i recently turned onto the fact that i could get my news by mobile phone, ipad etc and most importantly, interact with those that wrote the article, as @nickcloke can tell you.

    For those reasons alone, i have not bought a local or national newspaper in about a year. I have tuned out the items i am not interested in and focus on those that i want to know about. However, just by skimming a newspaper i may see something that catches my eye, and find something that i didn’t know about. Tuning out the bits i don’t want sometimes results in missing something that the print journos have written.

    Having said that, i don’t miss the papers in the morning.

    Paul Martin. Middle aged, grey and online.

    • michaeltaggart September 9, 2010 at 4:26 pm #

      Yes, because good newspapers will always be better than the internet, at least for the forseeable. If you compiled a list of the top 3,000 writers/journalists/opinion-spouters/information-bringers in the world, 2,750 of them would be off-line journalists (probably with online activity too). The ones who were predominantly web-based (Adriana Huffington etc) probably also do a lot of high-level traditional media work. The problem is this accounts for a very small per centage of the total.

      Thanks for contributing @ukcamaraman.

  5. Faz September 8, 2010 at 9:12 am #

    It’s not just online news and social networking that the “grey haired surfer” is migrating to, but also their whole spending habits are being changed by the advent of increased usability and accessibility. Of course a lot of this could be attributed to the social networking sites driving the shift.

    • Frankie Taggart September 12, 2010 at 9:51 am #

      Faz – I want to insult you but I don’t want to use offensive language on this blog. Would you mind providing me with an email address to which I can send foul, obnoxious abuse? Thanks.

  6. Jason Rigby September 8, 2010 at 2:21 pm #

    All too true Mike, but there is still no easy way to explain to your mom why you don’t want to be her friend on Facebook.

    • michaeltaggart September 9, 2010 at 4:27 pm #

      You could just be honest about your porno career and your drug-taking 🙂

  7. Jason Rigby September 9, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    I know that if I did that Mike; it would trigger her natural competitive streak and I really don’t want to hear those stories. 😛

    But seriously, a great piece Mike and very useful if you don’t have those TGI figures to hand. As a marketeer I’ve always had one eye on the empty nester/silver surfer market and just didn’t have the inclination to marry them up to the social media explosion.


  1. Can we save local newspapers? « Michael Taggart - October 13, 2010

    […] consumers of media are changing their habits at a frightening pace, largely at the expense of the […]

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