How publishers can embrace digital natives and digital immigrants


Image of a cell phone on top of a stack of folded newspapers. Digital Native vs Digital Immigrant.
Image of a cell phone on top of a stack of folded newspapers. Digital Native vs Digital Immigrant.
I attended a publisher conference in recent weeks where the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant” were liberally tossed around:

  • Digital native: Roughly, if you are 35 years old or younger in the United States, you likely are a “digital native.” You live and breathe all things digital. Gadgets jazz you. Social media experimentation is the norm. The world of 1’s and 0’s is a comfortable old shoe because you’ve known nothing else. Print is a mind-stumping peculiarity to you.

  • Digital immigrant: If you are older than 35 in the United States, you are a “digital immigrant.” While the world tilts digital, you spend much of your time un-learning your print habits (even as you secretly prefer them). You don’t want to look old. You understand social media, smartphones, tablets, and wearable devices like you understand that Mars and Venus are the next planets to us – you read it somewhere.

And, in a state of fluidity, digital immigrants are ferociously trying to lose their accents.

I see these two mirrored worlds at most media industry conferences. The 40-, 50-, and 60-somethings from legacy publishers aim to understand that Silicon Valley presenter speaking flawlessly about the world he inhabits.

They are a microcosm of the complex markets they serve as publishers.

Eyes widen. Heads cock. Laughs beneath their breaths. The bemused look of curiosity breaks out across half the audience. “What world does he live in?” they seem to ask. They inevitably try to compare what the speaker says to their children and grandchildren, who, no doubt, get similar curious looks from their elders.

One evening at the publisher conference, this precise scenario played itself out over dinner. The older legacy publishers poked and prodded the 35-year-old Silicon Valley digital guru like a zoo animal.

So, what do you use Twitter for?

How is that different from Facebook?

How does Google define success for Google+?

How is text messaging different than e-mail?

What is Snapchat? Vine? Instagram?

What is “measured life”?

Why do you go to all this trouble when you could get everything you described in a simple print package?

The 35-year-old poked back a little, innocently asking how the older crowd uses print. The looks on their faces were equivalent to me asking, “So, how do you use air?” Clearly, the digital native has faced these questions before.

This divide skews younger around the world, which is why I used the “United States” qualifiers above. For example, a digital native in India might only exist among high-demographic 10- to 15-year-olds today.

But it is a canyon of life experiences that will narrow over time, and it likely will exist for at least another 35+ years in the United States, longer elsewhere in the world.

I recall visiting the Strasbourg, France, daily newspaper Dèrnieres Nouvelles d’Alsace (DNA) in recent years. As you may know, the Alsace region changed hands between Germany and France four times between 1871 and 1944. What you don’t know is that DNA continued to produce a German edition for its dwindling German readership until 2012 – probably long after it made economic sense.

Print will be that way for publishers even as the world goes digital. You are not going to convert long-time print natives to digital any more than you are going to convince an 80-year-old German-speaker to drop their native reading habit.  

Publishers must embrace that they have three core markets for their packaged journalism:

  1. Digital natives: The digital natives will rarely embrace print, perhaps on weekends. They might want digital-only solutions from publishers and are frustrated at the experiences so far. They require new ways of packaging, marketing, and are accustomed to free – though that is starting to melt. The smartphone is central to them.

  1. Print natives: The print natives will rarely embrace digital unless for a specific reason like connecting with their grandchildren or old friends. There will be no wholesale conversions. Given the option in print + digital subscription bundles to activate their digital accounts, they ignore the publisher in their gleeful embrace of print. Their passion for print suggests, too, that they can pay a premium for it.

  1. Digital immigrants: The digital immigrants are the tough segment. They prefer print, but know the world is going digital. So they are trying to learn the “new language” and trying to drop their accents in the process. They are curious about digital, but take it one step at a time. They are more digitally savvy than they sometimes let on, adopting permeations of the digital native’s lifestyle. The tablet is perfection to them: a print-like experience enhanced for digital.

In each of our zoo cages, I suppose we are each animals to be stared at.

Yet as news publishers, we need to push past the amazement, stop worrying about converting each other, and embrace the natives and immigrants with clear business models for each segment.

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