August 23, 2008

Changing news audience behavior

Our colleagues at the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press have issued their latest findings from a survey they have conducted every two years about Americans’ news consumption habits.

One headline is that 23% of American adults fit into a news-audience category they call “Integrators.” They get the news from both traditional sources and the internet, and they comprise a more engaged, sophisticated and demographically sought-after audience segment than those who mostly rely on traditional news sources.

The People-Press analysts led by Andrew Kohut also identify three other groups in a typology of news consumers:

  • Net Newsers make up 13% of the adult population and are a young cohort who rely on the internet for news more than they do traditional channels such as television, newspapers, and radio. They are affluent and even better educated than the News Integrators: More than eight-in-ten Net Newsers have at least attended college. They not only rely primarily on the internet for news, they are leading the way in using new web features and other technologies. Nearly twice as many regularly watch news clips on the internet as regularly watch nightly network news broadcasts (30% vs. 18%).
  • Traditionalists make up 46% of the population. This is an older, less educated, and less affluent news segment that is particularly tuned into the TV news. One salient feature of Traditionalists’ behavior: Unlike the news Integrators, or those who mostly get news from the web, most Traditionalists say that seeing pictures and video, rather than reading or hearing the facts, gives them the best understanding of events.
  • Finally, there is cohort called the Disengaged, who make up 14% of the population. They have little interest in the news and report that on a typical day they often get no news at all. Overall, about a fifth of the adult population on any given day say they get no news — a doubling of the “no news” group since the early 1990s.The People-Press report is full of interesting data about trends in news consumption — painting a picture about how Americans’ reliance on traditional news sources (except cable TV news) has declined since the early 1990s, while reliance on the internet for news has grown. Check out the table labeled “Newspaper Readership Declines; Internet News Increases” in the in the middle of this page.

Still, it is important to note that television news is far and away the most important source of news for Americans, especially their local TV newscasts.

The rise of the Integrator group is especially important to us here at the Pew Internet Project because it illustrates something we see as we study internet users. Many people get information from a variety of sources and don’t just rely on one channel or one platform exclusively. For instance, that phenomenon was much in evidence as we studied how people get information to solve problems.

The Integrator and Net Newser cohorts are also people who are moving away from “appointment media.” Instead of watching a TV newscast at the hour it is broadcast or reading the newspaper that lands on their front stoop in the morning, they are checking in with the news throughout the day when the spirit moves. They also spend so much time online that they report they often bump into news by happenstance even when they are online trying to do something else such as check their email or do web searches.

And the Net Newser group is particularly interesting because they are the most likely to treat news as a participatory affair. They will post comments on it, check out news recommender sites such as Digg, Reddit, or NewsTrust, read blogs, visit video sites, and even, occasionally, post news material themselves.

As we’ve watched the People-Press surveys, we have begun our own debates on the Pew Internet staff about the meaning of all this change. I think one potential future trend is that news consumers might not be as tied to one particular news platform as people have been in the past. In other words, the distinctions between the different channels of news — newspapers vs. television vs. internet vs. radio vs. magazines — might fade in consumers minds in the years to come.

When you can “watch TV” on your phone and “read the newspaper” on your laptop, scan updates on popular blogs in your newspaper or magazines, and post breaking news yourself on a microblog like Twitter, how important and distinct are these different platforms?

The new news ecology that is described by the People-Press report suggests there is a rising class of news consumers who want to get the news from any platform, any time, and any place that they are in the mood for news. I can’t wait for the next version of this People-Press survey in 2010 to figure out if this theory about people being less tied to particular news channels makes sense.