Journalism in the Age of the Accidental News Junkie

A study of Millennial media habits claims that young people crave hard news. Do they really?

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Young Americans care about the news, honestly they do, but their discovery path typically winds through social media feeds, not through newspapers, news sites, or televised news coverage. That is one of the major conclusions of a new report on Millennial media habits, which finds that 80 percent of young people get their news from online sources, and social networks are replacing network news as the daily touchstone for current affairs.

Nearly 90 percent of young people get news from Facebook regularly, but less than half say that news is their main motivation for visiting Facebook's site or app. (Nor is news the primary purpose for Millennials on Twitter, even though Twitter is a popular destination for journalists and news junkies.) This suggests that much of the news “discovery” on Facebook and Twitter isn’t as purposeful as seeking news about Congress in the New York Times or looking up baseball scores on Instead, it suggests that news discovery is becoming more like an occasional accident.

"People have always discovered news events partly by accident, by word-of-mouth, or by bumping into it while watching TV news or listening to the radio, and then turning to other sources to learn more,” the authors of the American Press Institute's report write. There have always been purely passive news consumers, who might hear bits and pieces of current affairs as they scan the radio.

Today, however, there might be something very much like an “accidental news junkie”—somebody who doesn’t particularly care about the news, but spends so much time on Facebook and Twitter that he develops a soft-focus expertise in current affairs without having to spend much time reading newspapers, visiting homepages, or otherwise investigating the news stories that periodically pop up on his News Feed.

Another indication that young people are learning how to stay on top of the news without devoting too much energy to finding it is that a clear minority of young people are paying for news and information. Although 93 percent of Millennials said they subscribed to at least one media services, less than half said they pay for news. The share of young people who pay for a news service or app (40%) is less than the number who have paid for movies and TV (55%), games (48%), or music (48%).

The American Press Institute's report claims that young people care about the news quite a bit. "Millennials are more likely to report following politics, crime, [or] their local community" than pop culture or lifestyle news. There are a few reasons I don't quite buy this claim.

I have a deep skepticism toward all questionnaires about media behavior that make the interview subjects seem like news hounds. This is a skepticism that goes back to at least 2013, when I watched a panel discussion on the future of news, and Ehab Al Shihabi, then-executive director of international operations for Al Jazeera America, claimed that a survey conducted for the company concluded that up to 50 million people want gravely serious, in-depth, non-talking-head, original TV journalism about international affairs. This survey suggested that Al Jazeera America's audience would number in the millions when it captured this allegedly underserved demographic. Several months later, however, his network was averaging 10,000 viewers per hour—about one percent of Fox News.

It seems plausible that there are tens of millions of Americans, old and young, who don't keep up with current events but think they should. If you ask them if they value serious news, they're going to say yes. But if you watch their actual media behavior, you will find something different.

Last month, News Whip published its list of the most-engaged stories on Facebook in January 2015 (not most-read, exactly, but similar). "There were few hard news stories amongst the top 150 stories," they wrote, "but plenty of wacky and intriguing stories and lists." Here were the top 15.

No, not quite "politics, crime, [and] their local community."