Mark Mellman: The young and the newsless

I am getting old. I know that because I’m complaining about the young.

They just don’t pay attention to news about politics and public affairs. If we thought earlier generations were out of touch with what was happening at home and abroad (and anyone who has watched a focus group realizes the limitations of knowledge hobbling voters), just wait until we’ve got an electorate filled with today’s younger generation.

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A survey by the American Press Institute and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research revealed just 57 percent of those under 30 even try to keep up with news about “national government and politics.” Among those just a bit older, ages 30-39, 79 percent try to pay attention to political news.

In response to a different question from Pew, a mere 5 percent claimed to actually follow political/Washington news “very closely.” Those 65 and older were five times more likely to do so.

Even big stories generate lower levels of interest among the young. Just 15 percent of those under 30 followed news about the Paris terrorist attacks “very closely,” while 43 percent of those 65 and older paid close attention to that story. 

Big differences also emerge on domestic stories. Only 7 percent of younger Americans followed news about the incoming Republican congressional leaders closely, compared to a still anemic 28 percent of those over the age of 65.

Local issues fared no better. In the Pew study, older Americans were three times more likely to follow news about local government than those under 30.

The simple truth is that young people do not like news. Pew reported just 29 percent of millennials enjoy following the news, contrasted with 58 percent of those over age 48 (“the silent generation” and baby boomers). 

Those preferences are reflected in the relatively small amount of time younger Americans spend engaging with the news. Millennials spend an average of just 46 minutes a day following news items, while Generation Xers spent 66 minutes, boomers 77 and the silent generation 84 minutes per day.

“Ah,” you may say, “they are young. It will change as they get older.” It’s a good theory, but unfortunately it lacks empirical support. As members of each generation aged between 2004 and 2012, Pew reported little change in the amount of time they spent following news. Older people remained substantial news consumers, while the young continued to be far less attentive. 

Will new media come to the rescue? It hasn’t yet. 

Moreover, news consumers generally spend very little time on Internet news sites. A McKinsey study revealed that 92 percent of the time we spend consuming news is on traditional platforms like TV, radio and, yes, newspapers. Smartphones, tablets and computers account for 8 percent of the time people spend with news. 

To be sure, 30 percent of adults in the U.S. get news from Facebook, and a very disproportionate share are young. However, that exposure is mostly incidental: 78 percent merely run into news content when looking for something else. Relatively little of that news is about government or politics, about 15 percent on Facebook. 

News encountered on Facebook also generates much lower levels of engagement. Visitors who arrive at a news site directly spend an average of four minutes and 36 seconds. Those who arrive from Facebook spend just 1 minute and 41 seconds. 

Inattention has consequences. In a CIRCLE survey conducted just after the 2012 elections, only 53 percent of young people knew which party was more conservative and only 42 percent knew which party controlled the House. 

It’s easy, but unfair, to simply blame the young. For their own good, and for our democracy’s future health, news platforms need to develop products that entice younger Americans into absorbing news and information. We will all be better off if they succeed.  

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.