From 'Too Much' to 'Just Right'
The authors begin with the premise that young people are engaged in this historic presidential campaign at higher levels than in years past. They attribute this to increased attention from both the candidates themselves, but also the news media. The context of this campaign only ups the ante, with an exciting primary battle setting the stage for a hotly contested general election matchup.
Specific to following election-related news, the 89 first-time voters involved in this study ranging in age from 17-22, are following this election fairly or very closely for the most part (60%). Nearly half go online for news about the election (49%), politics (44%), and political candidates (also 44%) on a weekly basis. This said, most plan to vote this November and desire to be informed about where the candidates stand on the key issues of the day, but at the time of this study (April 2008), they were waiting until later in the process to fully tune in.
Election-related news itself is described by young voters as "too much." For them, news consumption is not a labor of love, but instead work, and merely another task they must fit into their already busy schedules. It isn't the subject of the news that is overwhelming, but its presentation and quality. This includes excessive text, too many stories without any intuitive organization, and excessively lengthy or trivial stories. In these situations, the knee-jerk reaction for young readers is to click away.
Given these concerns, the respondents favored news web sites that made choices for them. Google and Yahoo news aggregators work along these lines. They also like to make snap decisions based on story headlines, and favor well-designed web sites. Cnn.com is referenced at many junctures as a model of sorts. The participants were loathe to get sucked in to a web site, shying away from embedded video and other interactive features that might drain time, and preferring text instead. In sum, the authors conclude, that "...like Goldilocks, young adults are searching for a site that's 'just right'---that has the right mix of speed and depth, activity and passivity."
It may be surprising to some that young people favor name brand news sites over lesser known new media entries. General television news and local newspaper sites received the highest trust ratings. They place more stock into fact-based stories than opinion, and professional journalists more than amateurs. Moreover, attempts to get overtly cute or humorous in news presentations also fail. For instance, the cartoonish graphics of Votegopher.com diminished the seriousness of the site's content.
Other Web 2.0 features also fell short in the eyes of this cohort of young voters. They are not interested in contributing to or perusing reader comments on news web sites, finding much of it ill-informed and not worth their time. They also shun the uncivil tone these dialogues often assume. While they are adherents of social networking sites, they feel that news should retain a separate identity.
Taken together, the authors conclude with a series of recommendations. News organizations should develop more simplistic, intuitive web sites, and offer information in more "manageable, bite-sized chunks and layers." They should develop content that appeals specifically to young voters, offering simple candidate comparisons on key issues, background information to provide context, defining complex terms, and featuring more graphical displays of complex information (maps, graphs, charts). News updates should be selective, and reader comments, if allowed, should be moderated, prioritized, and sortable. Perhaps most importantly, articles should address issues that young people care about, like student loans, high gas prices, or global warming.
The study offers a great service to news organizations at a time of great change in the media environment. An exciting presidential election is an excellent time to attract a new generation of readers, a cohort that has been slow to adopt the news habits of previous generations. The formula the authors prescribe seemingly appeals to all age groups and may represent the saving grace desperate newsrooms seek as they figuratively throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. I, for one, am hopeful that political news consumption among our youth are one of these "noodles."