Winter 2008

What Young People Don’t Like About the Web—And News On It

‘… news organizations need to pay attention to what young people say about what makes them tune out on news sites.’

By Vivian Vahlberg

There were many surprises when my colleagues at Northwestern University’s Media Management Center (MMC) and I spent hours earlier this year observing and listening to a diverse group of 89 young people talk about their experiences getting election news online. We expected that these 17- to 22-year-olds would distrust “mainstream media,” be drawn to content produced by other young people, love opinionated commentary, and tilt toward sites rich with video and flashy graphics.

Instead, as we reported in “From ‘Too Much’ to ‘Just Right:’ Engaging Millennials in Election News on the Web,” we found they:

  • Trusted news about the election more from well-known news organizations than from other sources.

  • Valued the expertise and reporting of journalists more than opinions or comments, even from other young people.

  • Valued many of the traditional roles of journalists, including separating the wheat from the chaff, selecting what’s important and what people will want to talk about, displaying things in attractive ways that indicate their relative importance, providing up-to-date information, and striving for the facts and the truth, not the spin.

  • Often avoided news video as being too time-consuming.

Often downgraded sites with lively graphics as not seeming serious enough. Things they like in other contexts on the Internet—from humor to user-generated content to social networking to participation—they didn’t like in the context of news. To them, news is different—and serious.

But the biggest surprise of all was how often these young people used the same words to describe their reaction to a variety of Web sites. Most frequently heard was the phrase “too much”:

I feel like it’s too much sometimes, too much unnecessary material. (Justin, 19)

It was just … too much stuff. … By the time you get down here … I don’t even want to finish it. … It was all thrown at you at once. It was just kind of overwhelming. … There’s so much going on in a younger person’s life already. … They are stressed at school and with work and those different things, and they don’t want to just sit there and have to filter through all this extra information. (Rebecca, 20)

It looked like too much information. [It] just kept going and going and going. (Susie, 20)

It’s kind of like brain overload. … At first I liked it, but … then as I scrolled down, it’s like, “When does it end?” (George, 21)

When I opened CNN, a lot of the stuff on it kind of seemed a little bit overwhelming. … You had to really get into it and really focus on it. (Amanda, 17)

Importantly, it wasn’t just the younger or less educated who had this response; even the older college students did. It wasn’t just jam-packed all-news sites that triggered the response, either; it happened on youth-oriented sites too.

Reacting to Web Sites

We heard these similar sentiments expressed so often about so many different sites that we became convinced that remedying this feeling is essential if news organizations are going to attract and engage young people in serious news. Fortunately, our interviews shed considerable light on why these young people feel this way and what news organizations can do about it.

We conducted these interviews because we felt the 2008 presidential election provided an entrée for news organizations to cultivate the interest of young people in serious news online. We sought to identify and test techniques and strategies that might first catch the eye of young people and then deepen their engagement. (A previous MMC study last year had shown that while young people aren’t particularly interested in news, they will read it “if it catches my eye.”) We reasoned that lessons learned from election coverage might well apply to other types of serious news.

To do our study, we showed them eight Web sites that represent a variety of approaches, features and attributes. They explored these sites and then we listened and watched as they talked about and showed us things on them. The Web sites we chose ranged from mainstream media sites (USAToday.com, CNN.com, and detroitnews.com) to youth oriented sites (Campus Politico and think.mtv.com) to video-heavy sites (election.tv) to nonprofit sites (novotenovoice.com and votegopher.com). We were looking for patterns, not seeking to “grade” the Web sites.

Interestingly, it didn’t matter whether we showed them a well-designed mainstream news site like USAToday.com or an innovative, youth-oriented site like think.mtv.com. The reaction was often the same: “too much,” at times expressed as “too many.” Different things triggered this feeling:

  • Too many things competing for attention, without signals about which was most important. They wanted someone (or something) to make choices. They wanted design to clearly signal priority.

  • Too many details and words. They wanted things distilled so they could understand them better without spending lots of time, but they also wanted additional resources available if they’re interested.

  • Too much text or too high a percentage of text to graphics. They valued information shortcuts.

  • A site feature that’s not immediately understood. If a feature has to be explained, they don’t look at it.

  • Pages or stories going on and on. Interest waned with scrolling.

Notably, it wasn’t usually the subject of the news that triggered the “too much” reflex, unless they thought the media had flogged the subject to death. It was more a question of presentation, quantity and level of information.

Finding Remedies

So what do we make of what we heard? A Web site compatible with their needs would address the components that follow:

  1. There’s a large unmet need for a different kind of news site—one that is designed not for news junkies but for inexperienced news consumers.

    Seen through the eyes of young people, most news sites look to be made for news junkies—people who are already familiar with the people and the issues. But young people don’t have a lifetime of information about candidates and issues that they can use to make sense of the news; most everything is new to them. Often, looking at news sites feels like coming into a calculus class midterm; it feels impossible to keep up because they don’t yet know the basics. So they tune out. Interestingly, young people are not the only ones who would be interested in a different kind of site; in separate MMC research with adults, we heard the same “too much” refrain from adults who are light or inexperienced news consumers.

  2. Such a Web site would provide fast, brief and prioritized news updates. Most news sites give them far more updates on far too many stories than they want. They don’t want to keep up with daily developments with a long list of ongoing stories; they just want to be aware of what’s most important or what people will talk about. To understand or care about all those updates requires more knowledge and interest than they have. To please them, a new kind of site would make it quicker and easier to frequently check what’s new. It would prominently display a quick-to-scan, constantly updated, very prioritized and selective news digest. For this audience, it’s far better to be selective than comprehensive. News organizations shouldn’t try to get them to spend more time following daily developments; they should make it attractive to come back frequently.

  3. It would help young people enjoy getting and feeling informed. They want to become informed—to understand, for example, the issues, the candidates, and who stands where. But they find this hard to do on news sites. Most stories assume they know more than they do. For example, they don’t necessarily know what a red state is or how conventions work or what supply-side economics and trickle-down politics are. Most stories are too detailed; few distill things down, like Wikipedia does, so they can clearly understand the basics. They loved it when shown Web sites with issues and candidate comparisons, definitions of key terms, and explanations of the electoral process. But such resources are hard to find amidst the clutter; these young people would have long clicked away before finding them.

  4. It would have significantly better, clearer and more immediately understandable organization and site design. Young people want the site design to signal what’s important and to guide their eyes. They don’t want to choose among a bewildering array of choices. They frequently said, “I don’t know where to look.” They want headlines that quickly and concisely telegraph what a story is about. They want information to unfold in manageable, bite-sized chunks and layers—so they’re not overwhelmed with too much at once but so they can go as deep as they choose.

They haven’t yet seen a Web site design that measures up.

In short, news organizations need to pay attention to what young people say about what makes them tune out on news sites: too much information, too many details, too many choices coming at them all at once without enough guidance as to which are more important; too much unrelieved text; stories that go on and on; endless coverage of trivial stories, and features that aren’t immediately and intuitively understandable.

Journalists need to listen to what young people say about wanting more information that explains things and fewer (or less prominently featured) incremental updates. Then news organizations should design something specifically for Millennials and other “light” news consumers that will make the job of getting informed manageable and perhaps even enjoyable.

Vivian Vahlberg is managing director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, where she directs the center’s digital media programs and many of the center’s educational and research projects. She is the lead author on two studies on young people and the Internet: “From ‘Too Much’ to ‘Just Right:’ Engaging Millennials in Election News on the Web,” and “If It Catches My Eye: An Exploration of Online News Experiences of Teenagers.” They can be read at www.mediamanagementcenter.org.


2 Comments on What Young People Don’t Like About the Web—And News On It
Bill Dunphy says:
March 29, 2009 at 10:32am
Very interesting piece, possibly because it alligns so neatly with my own idea, alas.
I have two questions I'd love to hear the authors answer that would help readers evaluate this work:
1) How were these 89 readers recruited? i.e. were they volunteers? randomly chosen from a larger coherent group? are they meant to be representative of anyone?
2) In what ways might the fact that your study focused on "election new" (a deep niche in news) limits its broader applicibility?
Roland says:
February 18, 2009 at 12:31pm
yes!!!
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