Question of the Week, February 10

Every week, we at Fit to Print will be asking one of the many important questions facing journalism today. These questions could range from general to specific, and from technological to legal or ethical. If you have a response to this week’s question, or an idea for a future question email Vincent Valk: vjvalk at gmail dot com.

As news organizations focus more on the internet, are generational gaps in computer and internet usage a problem for news access? Only 38% of those aged 65 and older regularly use the internet, compared to 70% of those from 50 to 64, and 74% of adults in general. Does this spell diminishing access?

No. If anything, it underscores the need for news organizations to effectively utilize the Internet. Even though over 60% of those aged 65 and up do not go online, that number is halved once you get to people aged 50 to 64. Someday, today’s over 65s will be replaced by today’s 55-to-64 year olds, a good majority of whom do go online. And as you move to younger and younger people, more and more of the media they consume is related to the internet in some way or another. You can’t base a business on the fact that some people in their 70s are afraid to turn on a computer.

Someone who is 60 today has used a computer, and the internet, at work. This is the reason why there’s such a huge gap in internet usage between, say, 60 and 70 year-olds. Most offices went online in the mid-to-late 90s. A 60-year-old today was still in the prime of his or her career back then, and very well could still be working. A 70-year-old was either retired or on the way out by the time internet access became commonplace in offices. Almost everyone in their 50s and 60s that I know who is computer literate – and most of them are, to some degree – learned how to use computers at work.

You could make a somewhat more reasonable case that the decline of print decreases access to information for the poor. But even that is changing because of netbooks, which are as little as $250. That’s less than an annual subscription to the New York Times. Of course, there are still people who cannot afford that. But those people were probably too poor to be reading the newspaper on a regular basis, anyway. Frankly, they probably don’t have the time to thoroughly read a newspaper. Is this fair? No. But it’s got very little to do with technology – and, still, a majority of those making under $30,000 a year do have internet access.

Andie Tucher of Columbia told us that there’s a ‘significant’ and ‘stable’ portion of the population that does not use the internet. Honestly, I don’t buy it. If you look at the latest figures from the Pew Center for Internet and American life, the largest jump in internet usage since 2000 was among over-65s, though they still lag very far behind other age groups. I think that says it all.

-Vincent Valk

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