Teenage media habits: no need for panic

Allister Heath

SO now we know what banks should do if they want some publicity: ask a teenage scribbler to write one of their research notes. That is what Morgan Stanley has just done, getting an enterprising 15-year old intern to write about his friends’ media habits. But while his findings make sense – they don’t have credit cards so can’t use eBay much; they watch more TV during the football season – they will come as no surprise to those outside the media industry bubble (this is not a criticism of the youngster, who will go far). For some reason, however, the establishment was stunned to discover that teenagers don’t use Twitter (they prefer Facebook); don’t like paying for anything, including music; have cut back on network TV, logging on instead to the BBC’s iPlayer; and claim to hate intrusive advertising. In other words, teenagers are in most ways remarkably similar to how the rest of us are becoming. The landscape is shifting profoundly as a result of the twin onslaught of economics and technology; but we all knew that already, which is why the industry is seeking to reinvent itself. Yet the Morgan Stanley team described the findings as “one of the clearest and most thought-provoking insights” they had seen. I hope for their sake they were not being serious.

To add insult to injury, in their stories reporting on the Morgan Stanley research, traditional newspapers highlighted – with much hand-wringing – one of the report’s findings: 15-year olds cannot “be bothered to read pages and pages of text” (true, though pre-web teenagers 15 years ago would have suffered from exactly the same affliction). This was interpreted by many (including Morgan Stanley itself) as meaning that young people have no interest in newspapers at all.

But this only shows that many journalists and analysts have caught the very same disease they are decrying and not reading documents properly. True, the report states that teenagers don’t read papers regularly, which is hardly a new development. But it also notes that free newspapers are the key exception to this trend, something which, for some reason, many established media players remain in denial about. “The only papers that are read are tabloids and freesheets … mainly because of cost; teenagers are very reluctant to pay for a newspaper (hence the popularity of freesheets)”. He also argues that paid-for papers that are cutting cover prices are gaining (“I have seen more and more copies read by teenagers”); and that teenagers like tabloid-sized papers because “their compact size allows them to be read easily, on a bus or train”.

Ten years ago, before the free newspaper revolution, the picture was one of unremitting gloom for the newspaper industry; now, while young people shun paid-for papers, many turn to their innovative free competitors. There is no doubt more commuters of all ages read hard-copy newspapers today than did a decade ago – they just don’t pay for them. Habits are changing in much more complex ways than is usually understood. We now consume media from a combination of sources, including the web, radio, mobiles, iPods and TV. Yet as anybody who takes a tube, bus or train will realise, the overwhelming majority, young and old, also reads hard-copy, usually free, newspapers. The challenge for media firms is to find ways of generating proper revenues from the web. It would have made more sense to ask the intern what he thought about that.