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The iTunes model of media consumption

January 30, 2014
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The iTunes model of media consumption
An earlier edition Apple iPod touch. Photo via

People aren’t consuming news or entertainment media the same way anymore.

Many are consuming less news. In the case of young people, they hardly consume any news at all.

Such “news” about news consumption has been reported lately everywhere from media outlets themselves to the formal studies by the Pew Research Center.

The Association of Educators of Journalism and Mass Communication, which I'm a member of, recently sounded an alarm about this and plans a special day this fall to encourage more news consumption and discussion on college campuses.

But people haven’t necessarily changed their appreciation for news as much as they have adapted to the realities of a changing media environment.

Anyone who works in that environment needs to take a big-picture look at news and entertainment media consumption trends in order to make their own adaptations and be realistic in expectations and strategic in execution.

iTunes model

One simple way to understand the media-consumption changes is to consider what I call the “iTunes model” of media consumption.

Essentially, iTunes enabled consumer purchases of not just albums or bundled media, but individual songs.

This seems simple enough, but it changed the equation of media consumption significantly in giving more control to consumers and changing their expectations elsewhere in the media ecosystem.

Consider how the album-to-song change has spread through the news and entertainment industries

Channel to show: People don’t pay attention to specific news stations or channels on TV or radio. They can watch — on DVR or smartphone — Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity or anything else and not be loyal to MSNBC or FOX News. It might not be an ideological choice in content, but topical. The net result is less loyalty to a given media company.

No channel distinction: I remember as a kid when the first of my friends “got cable.” We rushed to his house to watch and were very conscious of the difference between cable and network television. That doesn’t exist anymore, not just for type of media outlet, but source of information. People may be just as interested in — and find just as trustworthy — an article on a company, nonprofit or political agency website as they are in a traditional news source.

Topic loyalty: Some people might regularly visit a website or an app, but most are more loyal to a specific topic than they are to a branded media outlet.

Publication to article: People are subscribing less and less to publications in favor of trolling the massive number of free articles. They can do this via an aggregator, such as MyYahoo or on Google News or via a search on a topic. The point is, once they read an article, you can’t expect they’ll keep paging through that publication.

Subscription to search: As mentioned above, most people are not loyal to publications or specific outlets. They begin their information consumption with a search on Google, Bing, Yahoo or some other search engine. If people do subscribe, it is increasingly through RSS, or real simple syndication, which allows them to receive an email or alert whenever a new post on their favorite blog, app or website has been published. This may or may not be a traditional news outlet. It also may or may not be a general subscription, but could be selective of a specific subject matter only, anything from economic development to education to environmental news.

Not time bound: Time shifting has been a big product of using DVRs for television news and information. But the same is done with radio through the use of podcasts, and “print” matter online can be saved for later using Instapaper, Flipboard, Pulse,, Reddit and other tools that let them read or view later.

From journalist to crowdsourced curation: One role of journalists traditionally has been to sort through potential stories and put together a package for their audience. But the same tools mentioned above allow today’s consumer to get crowdsourced information from other consumers in their various online networks, including topic-specific thought leaders they admire.

Consumption paradox

The net result of all of this is paradoxical — a public overwhelmed with information who nevertheless reports in various surveys less news consumption.

But the reality might be they're consuming as much or more than before, but in different ways.

To use a food metaphor, they’re grazing on snacks all day long, as opposed to sitting down for three square meals a day — and then reporting that they skipped breakfast.

iTunes model v. traditional habits

There are two potential outcomes of this in the future.

We could be looking at a media-consumption landscape where there are smaller audiences attracted to specific content, one item at a time, with no loyalty to the source or product containing the information.

Or, we could return to the old model of people being loyal to a select few sources of information. This latter scenario would be more likely if people feel overwhelmed and would value a few sources of relevant and affordable information.

We likely will see both outcomes to a degree, if the history of media innovation and evolution shows us anything.

Some people will embrace the constant cacophony of updates from multiple sources on multiple platforms. Others will want to resign themselves to a few well-chosen sources.

The challenge for journalists, advertisers, marketers and public relations professionals will be to navigate this media-consumption model with strategy and sanity.

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