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Reading is the fastest way to get news
Video has unrecognised drawbacks
This week Canberra University’s News and Media Research Centre released their annual Australian Digital News Report and as usual it contains a trove of fresh data about news habits and trends.
The really big picture, or pictures, tend not to change year to year, and I think that’s true again this year. In future newsletters I will explore the data further: this week, I am including here a commentary I wrote for the report on why most people prefer to get their digital news in text rather than video.
This is a clear finding in the report, but is counter-intuitive to those accustomed to thinking of TV news as the archetypal scale news medium.
Why video doesn’t always work for news
It’s a trope of modern life that people don’t read anymore.
But it’s totally wrong. More people are reading, and they are reading more. You see them everywhere, a hand held before them, looking at their phones.
Some of them are watching video, some listening to audio. A rare few are actually talking to someone. What the majority are doing is reading.
Email, the web, social media: despite big amounts of imagery, none of it would make any sense without the text.
Perhaps what people really don’t do so much anymore is read books. For people who love books, this is a bit sad. But I believe - and would love to see proved - that the net consumption of the written word has risen with the smartphone era. This year’s Digital News Report offers an insight into why.
The team at the News and Media Research Centre included a question for the first time to determine preferences for consuming news via text or video.
The data is unequivocal: the majority of people (61%) prefer to get their online news in text form. Only 11% prefer news video. Considering that 27% either don’t know or watch and read news about the same, that is a major win for the written word.
TV news transplant
This is not surprising to anyone who has been involved in trying to persuade online news audiences to consume video.
Around 2012 when I was the editor of the big Australian portal ninemsn, video news was heralded as the next big thing. This was a revelation borne of commercial necessity - video ad prices were high, normal display advertising was cheap and getting cheaper - and also dovetailed nicely with technological and network improvements.
We quickly discovered that audiences would not consume TV news that had been transplanted online. A typical TV news story - 90 seconds, with an introduction from a studio presenter, a voiceover from a reporter and a piece to camera - is a format unsuited to digital platforms.
This was surprising to the TV networks, but it is understandable. A user’s experience is to click the story link, then click the video, sit through the pre-roll ad, then watch 90 seconds just to get a small amount of information.
The alternative of getting news through text is much more efficient. People read faster than news reporters speak (most people read at around 250 words per minute while news presenters usually speak around 150 words/minute). Equally important to this bandwidth difference is content structure, with written news conforming much more closely than video news to the “inverted pyramid”. A text story will almost always present the most important information first, where video news often withholds important data in order to encourage viewing through the piece. Information density is higher in text, and the reader can jump around at will.
So in general text wins.
There are two areas where video news has superpowers, however. Firstly, video (and more importantly, the audio that goes with it) has the power to connect emotionally to the audience in a way text cannot achieve. Watching and listening to video news is closer to real human experience than reading.
Secondly, there is a whole class of news that is predicated on the video itself: in effect, where the video is the news. You can call this “event” video, where an extraordinary, important, or otherwise newsworthy event is caught on video. Text descriptions of such events - a volcano erupting, cars colliding, or a sportsperson making a brilliant shot - are so impoverished they often don’t rate a mention.
Rise of TikTok
There are more riches in this year’s DNR Emerging News Habits data which I would like to mention in passing. The first is the continuing rise of TikTok, which is interesting considering the limits of video as a news vehicle. Overall TikTok use has doubled since 2020, and now 13% of Gen Z (people up to 25 years old) use it for news. Every product influences its content profoundly, and on TikTok this is stark: the short, portrait-orientation videos encourage an illusion of instant understanding. I don’t see TikTok as a promising mainstream news medium, but it would be unwise to dismiss a product on this kind of trajectory.
In terms of podcasts, I read the DNR data for overall use as being flat, which stands in contrast to the investments we are seeing in podcast content both in Australia and globally. The rise from 31% to 33% of people using podcasts over the past year is not enough to overcome the margin for error, and the big picture has been more or less the same for the five years of the report’s history.
What is fascinating and clear is the rise of Spotify as a podcasting platform (moving from 25% to 33% to become the biggest platform) which coincides with massive investment by the Swedish company over the past two years. It’s an area of ferocious competition, and it’s good to know that a billion dollars in content spending can move the market.
Have a great end of the week,