Washington's Media Maze

By Finneran, Kevin | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Washington's Media Maze


Finneran, Kevin, Issues in Science and Technology


Policy analysis should not be merely an academic exercise. The goal is to inform and influence public policy, and therefore it has to reach the movers and shakers and the decisionmakers. That means it has to arrive at the right time via the right medium. But how does one do that in a world of network and cable TV, traditional and satellite radio, print newspapers and magazines, the online sites of the traditional media outlets and the proliferating Internet-only sources of information, email news services and listserves, laptops and tablets, Blackberries and iPhones and Androids, tweets and social networks, uTube and Tivo?

Well, one does it in many different ways because the target audience absorbs information via numerous routes. Fortunately, a remarkably helpful guide to the media maze has recently become available online thanks to the generosity of the National Journal. After years of proprietary surveys of how Washington insiders acquire their information, National Journal has decided to make the results available for free online at www.nationaljournal.com/wia. The Washington in the Information Age is a fascinating treasure trove of data about how Capitol Hill staff, federal officials, and the Beltway cognoscenti use a wide variety of information sources. And the data is all presented in an addictive interactive format that is easy to use and difficult to surf away from.

The online site enables one to look at responses to dozens of questions and to break out the results by the sector where the respondent works, by political party, and by age. Some results are predictable: Republicans read George Will and Democrats read Paul Krugman. Others are not: In many respects the 20-somethings are not that different from the 50-somethings in how they seek information. I'm not going to try to pinpoint all these distinctions. In what follows, all the percentages reflect the answers of the total pool of respondents. Although interesting, the differences among subgroups do not alter the overall picture.

As one would expect, when asked what is the source of information about breaking news events, the overwhelming favorites are email alert, news website, and television, with TV being particularly important for Capitol Hill staff who are rarely out of sight of a news channel Twitter and RSS feeds rank almost as low as print magazines.

But when the question is how to acquire analysis and opinion about a national news story, print newspapers rival news websites for the lead, with more than 60% of respondents listing them among their top four sources. Only 20% list blogs among their top four, trailing behind radio. Blogs are making more inroads on Capitol Hill, where 35% of staff list them among their top four.

When asked how they read their daily news, the respondents vastly prefer screens to paper. About 40% rely on digital sources primarily or completely, and an additional one-third use print and digital equally. Fewer than 3% use print exclusively. This is not encouraging news for a magazine such as Jssues, which is primarily a print medium. But Issues is not delivering daily news, and this audience has a very different approach to less time-sensitive information.

When they were asked how they read monthly magazines, the response was dramatically different. Three out of four respondents read them solely or mostly in print. Only 6% read them only in digital form. This probably reflects the length of the articles and the fact that they are reading them at home or on airplanes. It is reassuring to know that the magazine is not yet ready for the trash bin of history.

As significant as the medium in which information is consumed is the timeframe in which it is wanted. National journal has been conducting this survey for many years, but in the past only small pieces of information were shared with outsiders. One critical insight that did emerge was the overwhelming importance of timeliness to Capitol Hill staff operating under the enormous pressure of the legislative agenda. …

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