Don’t write off the traditional media yet

This is the title of an article I’ve written for the BBC College of Journalism website, which was published yesterday. I’ve also added the full text below.

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The recent BBC Social Media Summit gave a fascinating insight into how mainstream media organisations are dealing with the challenges of social media.

But, lest we forget, Facebook only launched in 2004, and Twitter in 2006. And both took a few years until they became relatively popular even amongst the digerati.

Despite this relative infancy, these networks have already changed the way journalists work and how stories are sourced, shared and discussed. And the speed of change shows no signs of slowing, with social search just one of the latest challenges for organisations to harness and adapt to.

However, it’s worth remembering that social media isn’t yet as mainstream for the majority of audiences as it is for those at the BBC conference. Pew reported at the end of last year that only 8% of US internet users are on Twitter.

While in the UK a little more than half of internet users, 54%, have a profile on any social network. That leaves 46% of internet users who don’t – along with the 26% of adults who are still not online at all.

So the growth of social media is remarkable, and its adoption is certainly faster than most technologies or innovations, but it is far from ubiquitous. Indeed, in a climate where we have access to more news – and more news outlets – than ever before, I’m frequently struck by the resilience of traditional broadcast media for a range of services, including news.

Recent RAJARs showed that average weekly reach for radio was at a record high, at 91.6% of the UK adult population, as was weekly listening, at 22.4 hours per week. And TV viewing is also up: the average number of hours of television watched by individuals in the UK has risen modestly over the past five years: from 3.7 hours a day in 2004 to 3.8 hours a day in 2009 – an increase of 3%.

There are variations amongst different age groups and genres, but TV viewing has remained remarkably robust and constant amongst all age groups over the past five years. Arguably the biggest change has been the way we watch it. Digital TV, HDTV, DVRs, TV on demand and online catch-up TV services have all helped us to watch television when and where we want to.

Moreover, Ofcom’s Digital Day research demonstrated that traditional media holds people’s attention even when it is undertaken with other media. Evening viewing of scheduled television remains a single-medium activity for many viewers.

And it’s not all X-Factor and EastEnders which has held our attention: soap viewing on the five main PSB channels is actually down 2% since 2005. Ofcom’s 2010 report into public service broadcasting showed that TV news consumption on these channels and their digital portfolio has remained consistent, at around 100 hours a year. Average hours of viewing of current affairs on those channels actually increased from 39 hours in 2005 to 48 hours in 2009. It’s a fairly similar story for nations and regions’ news programmes.

This is not to say that change isn’t in the offing – or indeed taking place. Social media does matter to consumers, but so does traditional media – both in terms of its values and the way in which it is consumed.

Even if you share Mark Twain’s scepticism about statistics, the data seems to suggest that social media hasn’t quite replaced traditional media yet.

Damian Radcliffe (@mrdamian76) is Manager, Nations and Communities, at Ofcom. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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