November 17, 2004

Young high-speed users flock to internet for campaign news

Broadband is changing the political news landscape. In 2000, 30% of Americans at one point went online for news about the political campaign. That number rose to 41% in 2004, according to a report put out last week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. More strikingly, the share of Americans who said the internet was their main source of campaign news doubled between 2000 and 2004, going from 11% to 21%.

All this has taken place in the context of steady growth in internet penetration among the general population over that time period, but a sharp increase in the number of Americans with high-speed internet connections at home. About 53% of Americans were internet users by the end of 2000, a number that has grown to 64% today. Use of broadband at home has increased from 5% of Americans to 25% in the past four years.

Highly-wired 18 to 35 year-olds lead the way online in getting political news. The Pew Internet Project asked, in June of 2004, what people’s main source of campaign news was; 15% of all Americans said it was the internet, a number that, as noted, grew to 21% by November. Among people under the age of 35 with high-speed connections at home, 40% said that the internet was their main source of campaign news, twice the number (21%) who said the newspaper. By contrast, of those with broadband at home over 35, 26% said the internet was their main source of campaign news compared with 45% in this group who said the newspaper is mainly where they turned for news about the campaign.

The internet is now an important and growing source of political news for Americans, but it is mainly one voice in the chorus for the typical American. The TV remains the primary source for news about politics, followed in a pack by the newspaper, radio, and internet. For young Americans with high-speed at home, however, the internet has taken on a distinctive role in how they get news about politics. This group of wired young people is most likely to turn to the TV for their news about politics, but the internet is a strong second. The radio, newspaper, and magazines are comparatively unimportant sources for political news.

To be sure, some of this shift to the internet among young people represents a substitution effect; they are reading the daily newspaper online rather than picking up the hard copy. But this cohort of young high-speed users is also the most likely to seek out alternative news sources online, whether that means international news sources, “pure play” internet news sites or magazines, or blogs. Young people with fast home connections use the internet to get more detail about what the mainstream media covers, to explore different perspectives on the news, and to fact-check politicians, policy wonks, and the mainstream media. How this broadband effect shapes the collective civic intelligence, activism, and voting behavior of young people bears close watching in the future.