Beyond Time and Space: The ongoing change in our news consumption habits


30.6.2016 - By Jacob Mickelsson


Why have people traditionally been reading their newspapers during breakfast in the morning? The answer is obvious: It is a result of practical circumstances. Morning is when the newspaper usually arrived. Also, it is a physical, cumbersome object, which tends to anchor it to a certain time and place. This leads to a certain type of everyday routine.

Digital news does not function this way. The question of when and where you read news on your smartphone may even be somewhat difficult to answer. This is because the answer basically boils down to “whenever it’s convenient”, or “when I’m bored”. Indeed, a study by the Reuters Institute finds that younger consumers are less likely to see news consumption as a part of their daily habit. Circumstances have never forced them to form stable routines. Thus, they are more likely to emphasize the role of news as a time-killer.

However, despite digital news being less tied to daily routines, is still habit-forming. Instead of a manageable physical object (such as a newspaper) that provides the boundaries for a particular batch of news stories, the natural format for digital news is a continuously updated and ongoing stream. This results in what has been called the “checking-habit”. Such habits are not tied to specific times and places, but run throughout the day. The habit is also dependent on instant gratification. Each time you check the news stream, you expect to feel something. This emphasizes the short-term and experiential aspects of digital news consumption.

Other factors also support this conclusion. Research has shown that people tend to organize their mental representations of texts as a type of map structures. The mapping process is easier for physical objects like books and magazines than for digital texts: Their tactile aspects help people to orientate themselves in their memories of the text and form a journey in their minds. Our project’s interviews echo this – respondents have claimed that they get a better overview of a news story when reading it in a newspaper. You also feel that the newspaper is an understandable whole, something you can put on the table and say “this is the news today”. In the digital world, the news never end. You can never feel that you have grasp on some type of whole. Moreover, studies have showed that reading on an electronic screen is more mentally taxing than reading on paper. Thus, people find it harder to concentrate when reading on screens, and especially on small ones. A report by the Nielsen Norman group argues that reading through a mobile phone is twice as difficult as reading on a desktop computer. Incidentally, desktop devices are declining in popularity. So, in summary, print media is in decline, and news consumption seem to be moving from desktop to handheld. What does this mean for our daily news consumption habits and behaviors?

The time and place for consuming news used to come to us by circumstance, and you engaged in it as a separate thing. Now, the time and place are set by you alone, and you are simultaneously distracted by the totality of the internet, as well as the physical world around you. Someone might make the argument that this is the death of insightful news. Arguably, in-depth analysis is still possible on the mobile format, but this means that we must introduce arrangements that fit the consumer’s preferred behaviors, tools and circumstances of use. Handheld devices are better suited to formats such as videos and interactive material. It seems Facebook has caught on to this, and are prioritizing live video in their newsfeed. In the future, news consumption is likely to be either an interactive process of exploration, or a semi-active process of looking and listening. As news use can happen anywhere, anytime, the service needs to be very easy to engage with, and the user needs to be able to decide themselves how deeply to go into a particular subject.

In the next blog entry we will continue discussing this theme, but will turn it upside down. As we carry the news with us all the time, there is great opportunity to reconnect the news service with the immediate physical world around us.

The Consumer Newsscape Blog reports on the Consumer Newsscape Project. The project, conducted at Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, studies how consumers integrate news into their everyday activities and experiences. This blog discusses factors behind news consumption, and makes some educated guesses about the future.