Digital Natives: Following Their Lead on a Path to a New Journalism: By Understanding How Young People 'Process Various Types of News and Formats' Using New Media, Journalists Enhance Their Ability to Adapt Their Work to Emerging Technologies

Article excerpt

In his book, "Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives," John Palfrey, who codirects Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, observes how "grazing digital natives" read a headline or at most a paragraph with little or no context. Only those who take a "deep dive" into the content will end up making sense of the news. (1)

Based on the rapidity of digital change we've experienced during the past decade, the news audience of 2019--and the technology they use--will be very different. What we can depend on, however, is that those raised with digital technology will represent the majority in that audience. So if Palfrey's observations accurately describe the audience of the future, this "expedition" that all of us are taking will benefit from understanding how digital natives now use media for entertainment, information, education and social networking.

Admittedly, the map to guide us is crude. But it is reasonable to believe that the digital natives are leading the way--and are way ahead of news organizations. This belief is based on three predictable phases when new technology is adopted:

1. Awareness and exploration of the new technological tools

2. Learning how to use the new tools

3. Applying these new tools to daily life.

Digital natives who download iTunes on iPhones and blog about YouTube on MySpace are in the third phase. At the same time, if conferences such as the Online News Association held in September are accurate indicators, the industry is perhaps at the threshold of phase two. More print reporters are learning video, TV reporters are starting to blog, and professors are teaching new skills to communicate with an audience that values shorter, fact-driven multimedia.

All of these efforts address the formidable challenge for journalists to provide future news users with information relevant to them. In short, an industry in phase two still delivers most of its content on pages of text with links. Meanwhile, digital natives know what they want, how to find it (or even produce it), and whether it's worth their time.

Consider a future news model--one that integrates research by educators and psychologists with what we know about journalism to propose four concepts of value to digital natives. Online, we can already find plenty of examples of such concepts, but it is from this combination that research suggests the most effective way to attract and retain the news audience of the future. The problem, as confirmed by a recent study from The Associated Press, is that readers are "overloaded with facts and updates" and "having trouble moving deeply into the background and resolution of news stories."


Since 1998, the Lab for Communicating Complexity Online has been investigating how younger audiences process various types of news and formats. Measuring the "usability" of a Web site or tracking eye movements on a Web page can be valuable, but the lab uses a wider lens to focus on broader media behaviors and audience preferences.

Preliminary results tell us that it requires more than efficient aggregation of news to satisfy a savvy audience that interacts with video games and personalized social networks. The PICK news model, shown in the diagram on page 15 of three overlapping concepts, synthesizes what we know about personalization, involvement and contiguity (or coherence) in news with minimal distractions, which we refer to as cognitive "kick-outs."

Here's some good news: These PICK concepts have nothing to do with abandoning core principles of clear, accurate, ethical journalism and, in fact, have everything to do with strengthening them. Like news told in print, multimedia stories also must be organized, coherent and easy to understand. To make these stories engaging and informative, however, will require that additional skills be identified, learned and consistently practiced by the journalists of the future. …