2015 RJI Mobile Media Research by Roger Fidler

Attitudes about news transcend technology and generational divide

2015 RJI Mobile Media Research Report 5

Millennials more likely than boomers to use smartphones for news, but professional journalism and news sources matter to both

This is my final report on the results of the 2015 Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute Mobile Media News Consumption Survey. I will use it to explore the generational divide — mostly as it relates to the use of smartphones for news and attitudes about professional journalism and news sources — and to offer some suggestions for news organizations going forward.

By now we’re all aware that touch-screen smartphones have become the media of choice for just about everything for nearly all members of the Millennial Generation. So much so that they probably should be renamed the Mobile Generation.

Today, two-thirds of U.S. adults own smartphones, but this overall percentage conceals the generational differences in ownership and use of smartphones that have implications for news organizations. 

RJI surveyed only U.S. adult smartphone owners in 2015, so I am relying on the Pew Research Center’s 2015 report on technology devices for the overall and generational ownership percentages. The Pew survey found that smartphone ownership by millennials (ages 18-34) was nearing saturation at around 85 percent. By comparison, less than 60 percent of late boomers (ages 55-64) and only 30 percent of early boomers (ages 65 or older) were owners. Smartphone ownership by members of the in-between generation, so-called Gen Xers (ages 35-54), was close to the overall 68 percent.

For this report, I split the Gen X age group between millennials and boomers, so millennials in my references include respondents ages 18 to 44; boomers include ages 45 or older. The differences in percentages between the standard and expanded age ranges for these two groups are minimal.

Our findings from the 2015 RJI survey shown in chart 1 confirm that millennials are much more likely than boomers to use smartphones for consuming news stories provided by news organizations and that they are likely to spend significantly more time with mobile news content during a typical day.

When asked to rank their use of different legacy news media on a 1-to-5 scale where one was “never” and five was “very frequently,” the generational differences in responses, shown in chart 2, were less than might be expected, especially for printed newspapers. In this survey, participants were not asked about newspaper subscriptions or single-copy purchases. Their frequent “use” suggests they had read stories in printed newspapers, no matter how they might have acquired them, in the week prior to taking the survey. This finding should provide at least some encouragement for print journalists.

More than half of millennials indicated they frequently found news stories on their smartphones indirectly through social media links or by stumbling onto them while involved in non-news activities (see chart 3). By comparison, fewer than 2 in 10 boomers said they found news stories indirectly, although about the same number also said they found news stories directly through news organization websites or smartphone apps.   

Three-quarters of millennials said they frequently interacted with social media networks on their smartphones compared with less than 30 percent of boomers (see chart 4). More than two-thirds of millennials said they frequently used their smartphones for entertainment, such as watching videos, playing games or listening to music, compared with only about one-quarter of boomers. Millennials also were much more likely than boomers to frequently shop online and share news stories with social media networks.

From these results we can infer that millennials who own smartphones share a moderately strong interest in news with boomers, which includes using legacy news media, but have distinctly different methods for accessing news and a much greater reliance on mobile Internet access. While social media networks have become popular platforms for news content, news organization websites and smartphone apps are still likely to attract significant percentages of millennials and boomers who use smartphones to access news content.

The 2015 RJI survey also asked respondents to rank their agreement or disagreement with a series of statements relating to news and the adoption of new technologies.

Charts 5 and 6 confirm that millennials are much more receptive to trying and adopting new technologies than boomers.

Statements about professional journalism and news sources, however, yielded results that transcended the generational divide. Chart 8 shows nearly identical agreement on the importance of getting news from trusted sources and the vital role played by professional journalists in our society.

Chart 9 shows that both groups have equally strong preferences for news stories produced and selected by professional journalists. But millennials were twice as likely as boomers to prefer getting news from people they know. This is reinforced on chart 11 by their agreement with the following statement: “I often run across news when looking at social media.” Clearly, news organizations can benefit by using Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks, and by acquainting social media users with their reporters and opinion writers. The challenge, of course, is finding ways to monetize these connections.  

Millennials tended to be somewhat less skeptical of news accuracy and biases than boomers, as shown in chart 10, but both groups were about equally divided in their agreement with the following statements: “Most information in the news is accurate” and “Stories produced by professional journalists are less biased than most other news sources.”

To sum up, we need to recognize that the appeal of smartphones, especially for millennials, is convenience and immediacy. Unlike any other media, they are always available and always “on.” With smartphones, owners no longer need to wait for news. Students and millennial acquaintances, who usually are glued to their smartphones, frequently tell me that news finds them; they don’t have to go looking for it.

Smartphones also are highly personal, which engenders a demand for content and services that closely match the owners’ specific interests and immediate needs. The demands for bespoke news and information to be accessible on smartphones within seconds anywhere and anytime have understandably put enormous economic and structural pressures on news organizations. Nothing in our research suggests these demands will abate in the foreseeable future.


This survey was conducted for RJI in June 2015 by Ipsos, one of the world’s largest independent market research companies. It included 1,001 adults from all 50 states who owned smartphones. Forty-one percent indicated that they had a large-screen smartphone (phablet). Tablets were used by 53 percent of phablet owners and 39 percent of standard smartphone owners. Personal computers (desktop or laptop) were used by 69 percent of phablet owners and 73 percent of standard smartphone owners.

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