A reality check for online news

The idea that we’re in the midst of a dramatic shift away from traditional print and broadcast news media and toward online news media has become a commonplace, particularly in web circles. Newspapers, it’s widely assumed, are doomed to fade away because the young prefer getting their news from the Internet. Our Resident Philistine rehearsed this theme over the weekend, when he argued that the audience for newspapers, like the audience for Woody Allen movies, “is dying off.”

But there’s a little problem with this idea: It’s not true. Yesterday, the Pew Center for the People and the Press released its latest study of “news consumption” in the United States. It makes for fascinating reading. The picture it paints of the role of online news media is not at all like it’s been made out to be by web pundits.

First of all, after a short burst of explosive growth, demand for online news media has flattened. “The growth of the online news audience has slowed considerably since 2000,” Pew reports. Currently, 31% of Americans are going online for news three or more times a week. That’s up only slightly from 29% two years ago. By contrast, 40% of Americans report reading a newspaper daily, a number that’s down sharply from where it was ten years ago, but that’s been stable for the past four years (it was 41% in 2002).

The slowdown in the growth of online news media has been most pronounced, moreover, “among the very young, who are now somewhat less likely to go online for news than are people in their 40s.” Demographically, in other words, online news consumers tend to look a lot like offline news consumers:

As internet news has gone more mainstream, its audience has aged. Since 2000, nearly all of the growth among regular internet news users has occurred among those ages 25-64. By contrast, virtually the same percentage of 18-24 year-olds say they get news online at least three days a week as did so six years ago (30% now, 29% then). Currently, about as many people ages 50 to 64 regularly get news on the internet as do those in their late teens and early 20s.

If the audience for newspapers is dying off, so is the audience for online news.

The study also reveals that “the audience for online news is fairly broad, but not particularly deep”:

People who say they logged on for news yesterday spent 32 minutes, on average, getting the news online. That is significantly less than the average number of minutes that newspaper readers, radio news listeners, and TV news viewers spend with those sources. And while nearly half of all Americans (48%) spend at least 30 minutes getting news on television, just 9% spend that long getting news online.

The upshot is that online news appears to be not a replacement for traditional media but a supplement to it. The people who tend to use online sources are the same people who read newspapers and watch news shows on TV. They take a quick look at headlines online, but they continue to rely on traditional news sources for the details:

The web serves mostly as a supplement to other sources rather than a primary source of news. Those who use the web for news still spend more time getting news from other sources than they do getting news online. In addition, web news consumers emphasize speed and convenience over detail. Of the 23% who got news on the internet yesterday, only a minority visited newspaper websites. Instead, websites that include quick updates of major headlines, such as MSNBC, Yahoo, and CNN, dominate the web-news landscape.

The report is not good news for newspapers, but it does show that the reports of their imminent death have been exaggerated. The real division is not between the audience for online news and the audience for traditional news – they are the same audience. The real division is between the people who are interested in the news and the people who couldn’t care less. In fact, it looks very much like online news media are now merging with traditional news media, as the two come together in a symbiotic relationship to serve the same set of customers. They are not competing with each other so much as they are competing together against nonconsumption.

5 thoughts on “A reality check for online news

  1. SidneyV

    I read NY Times and WSJ online. I have stopped my subscription to the local print newspaper but added WSJ online subscription, which I find a lot more convenient. I also read a variety of blogs like this.

    What category should I belong? If we think of NYT and WSJ are not news-PAPERS long term, but news outlets, then both statements would be true:

    * Newspapers are dying

    * Online sources are proliferating

  2. jawandapuck

    Based on the numbers, your conclusion is logical. However, unlike the print medium, online still has a lot of evolutionary steam left in it. Today the online news interface is a simulation of the print medium, and for the most part, only slightly more convenient (except when you want to go to the washroom). However, increased adoption of broadband wireless and ultra broadband fiber suggest that revolutionary enhancements in online interfaces are coming, which will significantly increase convenience and quality. A next phase in convergence will bring seamless multi-platform transitioning and content integration and interdependence. Thus, online still has a lot more market share yet to steal from the print side. In fact, when print eventually becomes a digital medium itself, the assimilation will for all intents and purposes be complete (at least in the developed world).

    By the way, just came across your blog today. After thumbing through your posts, I can say I look forward to coming back often.

  3. interstar

    So we can all stop worrying about Wikipedia killing off Encyclopedia Britanica then? Another overhyped fad?

    There are a lot of open questions in your statistics. When people read the traditional newspaper or listen to radio they’re reading a lot of comment. Is that figured into the times that are given? Do people reading opinion blogs equivalently count that as “news” consumption?

    On television, how many of those 30 mins are adverts?

    And anyway, is a television minute the same as an internet minute in news quantity and quality? I’d suspect not.

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