Broken habits can break the media in a fragile climate

Laura Slattery: Sunny weather is not the only disruptive influence on news routines

Summer time, and the livin’ is disrupted. Normal routines go out the window along with caution, closed-toe shoes and regular presenters.

In beach-read season, our readiness for serious news is allegedly programmed to waver in favour of sun-drenched fantasy and wish fulfilment, which bodes ill for that segment of the serious news media that isn’t so adept at sun-drenched fantasy and wish fulfilment.

Road traffic is lighter, denting the hefty slice of radio listening that takes place in cars. Nights are brighter, meaning broadcasters without the rights to either sporting drama or Love Island hasten to dust off the same repeats they used last summer.

But before they can be broken, habits must first exist. And for those media outlets required to make a profit in order to stay alive, burrowing their brands deep into the finite routines – hourly, daily, weekly, monthly – of their target audience is what this business is all about.

Mornings aren’t quite what they used to be. The proportion of people who cite radio as their medium of choice for news in those first dozy minutes appears to be slipping, while the chunk of news consumers who blearily summon up smartphone apps first-thing has expanded.

That was, at least, the trend in the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s recent digital news report, which found that 33 per cent of Irish people first stumble across news each day via radio – still healthy, but down from the 39 per cent who said the same thing three years ago.

Over that period, the proportion who answered “the internet, via smartphone” to this first port-of-call question rose from 21 per cent to 31 per cent – a surge that Dublin City University’s FuJo institute, in interpreting the results, described as “the inexorable rise of the smartphone”.

The annual Reuters Institute study comes with the caveat that it is based on online samples, meaning they don’t represent the daily patterns of the resolutely offline population, whose commitment to retaining old media habits is obviously to be lauded.

But the latest report still confirms what can otherwise be gleaned from frequent chatter about phone “addiction” and its cousin, the online “detox”. We don’t just wake up and have a bit of a scroll. We do so repeatedly throughout the day, with consequences for battery percentages, stress levels and other pedestrians.

News frequency

In 2016, 53 per cent of Irish respondents to the Reuters Institute study said they accessed news “several times a day”. Three years later, this had swelled to 63 per cent, which FuJo academics said “underlines the importance of constantly updating content on news websites and apps”.

That’s “constantly updating”, in case you missed it. Declaring “there is no news” and playing piano music for 15 minutes, as BBC radio notoriously did once in April 1930, isn’t an option anymore, it seems.

The morning spike in demand for news media content, followed by less frenetic lunchtime and commuting ones, has had the tragic effect of forcing more journalists to get up at hours that used to be the preserve of breakfast show teams born with superhuman cheer. Some might say the real issue, however, is that non-mobile media’s knack for ingratiating its way into audiences’ lives has correspondingly weakened.

A noticeable feature of the now 13-year-old decline in newspaper circulation, especially around the time of the recession, was that readers who once purchased their favoured publication every day started to cut out days here and there – a slope that inevitably loosened print’s grip.

Television, too, is coming up against it in the battle to cement the nightly loyalty of younger viewers – the striking aspect of the undeniably magnetic Love Island’s 9pm success is how much of a novelty it seems in the age of Netflix.

After conquering basics like ease of access (those remote control buttons didn’t happen by accident), affordable pricing and email prompts, Netflix has become the algorithmic king of video-on-demand, so much so that when chief executive Reed Hastings considers his competition, he looks beyond the list of also-rans to that peskiest of rivals: “sleep”.

Night-time rival

The streaming service is “competing with sleep on the margin”, Hastings revealingly said in 2017, and indeed some nights have been so humid lately that a binge-watch of a random Netflix Original could hardly make them any less restful.

But if “sleep” can be regarded as a competitor to the ever-ambitious Netflix, then “sun” has long been one for more daytime-focused companies. A breakthrough at the witching hour won’t make up for attention lost to a heatwave.

Traditionally, by the time August comes around, the collective media brain has atrophied so much that we all start muttering about “silly season” in reflex self-defence. The whole concept feels increasingly nostalgic. The record of the past decade shows that terribly serious things (floods, riots, financial crises, heatwaves) have a habit of occurring in the month correctly regarded as the “Sunday” of the year.

Like the modern Sunday, August is no longer a universal festival of do-nothing that permits complete switch-off. That luxury, given the climate, has gone the way of alarm clocks.