Friday, August 11, 2006
CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Latest Pew study suggests Internet news usage may level off as "supplemental"
POSTED: Aug. 4, 2006
HEADLINE: Online news audience up, but no deep roots planted
By Steve Johnson
CHICAGO -- If you take Wall Street's pack wisdom for truth, old media outlets are knee-deep in the tarpits, awaiting only a little more wallowing -- about to go completely under.
Investors have turned away from proven moneymakers such as local television stations and newspapers in favor of the promise of the Internet, where the growth line is angling upward but the numbers are still comparatively small. But a new study on the way American people are getting get their news suggests Wall Street may be -- hold your breath -- betting too heavily on the unproven.
Every two years, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press asks the people about the press. And the latest survey suggests that, while online news has risen rapidly to become a major player, it also may be near, if not on, a plateau.
"The growth of the online news audience has slowed considerably since 2000, particularly among the very young, who are now somewhat less likely to go online for news than are people in their 40s," the survey says. "For the most part, online news has evolved as a supplemental source that is used along with traditional news media outlets. It is valued most for headlines and convenience, not detailed, in-depth reporting." The proportion of Americans who get news online three or more days a week has risen from 23 to 31 percent since 2000, according to the Pew survey of 3,200 adults conducted over a month this spring. But that's a significantly slowed growth rate from the earlier days of online news, and the survey (at people-press.org) says, "The audience for online news is fairly broad but not particularly deep." Respondents who got news online the day before being questioned spent an average of 32 minutes doing so, "significantly less" than the time newspaper, r!
adio and TV users spent getting news from those sources.
"It's surprising, because there's still a serious amount of mythology about the Internet and our business," says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington think tank. "If you go to places like Romenesko (an influential daily blog of journalism news), there's the constant noise about how much longer will print be alive, the inevitability of the Internet as the ruling medium. ... What struck me about this survey is that, yes, the Internet has in a relatively short period of time made its way into the daily media diet. However, it's also clear that it has not created a seismic change in how people use media. Yes, it has spread the usage out, but it has not vaporized any of its predecessors." Jurkowitz wrote an analysis of the survey results headlined, "Now in its Adolescence, the Internet Evolves into a Supplementary News Source." It's available at journalism.org and was, naturally, linked to from Romenesko.!
"People intuitively seem to know that the Web is essentially a place of aggregation and convenience, but that it doesn't at this point have a reputation for its own brand of distinctive journalism," Jurkowitz says.
Given how dynamic the Internet is, people are working, of course, to change that. Following a celebrity-sniffing trail blazed by the Smoking Gun site, the start-up celebrity gossip site TMZ (tmz.com) is the darling of old media this week for its work uncovering the unpleasant details of actor Mel Gibson's DUI arrest.
A relative handful of blogs -- political ones such as the Daily Kos (dailykos.com) and personal ones such as Heather Armstrong's Dooce (dooce.com) -- offer original reporting and thinking and draw audiences the size of which would make even newspaper publishers happy. And out there is the promise of "citizen journalism," reporting done by a corps of volunteers in their own communities.
Backfence.com is trying to create a national network of such sites and plans to start a Chicago version after Labor Day. A new venture, NewAssignment.net, will try another tack: soliciting donations to fund professional reporting on stories the "smart mob" -- the collection of Internet users who follow the news -- feels traditional media have failed to cover or cover well. That one's the brainchild of Jay Rosen, New York University journalism professor and media critic via his PressThink blog (pressthink.org). It's an experiment, Rosen writes, in seeing whether the Internet community will back its oft-stated desire for different kinds of reporting.
Early attempts to start such sites have provided mostly weak results in terms of both content and cash. Except in such realms as celebrity and tech news, small-shop blogs and opinion writing, the Internet, for the most part, has not supported a professional newsroom or inspired significant volunteer journalism in this country.
That's not to say, however, that it won't or that the Pew study's suggestion of a plateau will prove definitive. Quick-hit citizen journalism, the posting of I-was-there videos from a local power outage to Hurricane Katrina, is booming on the likes of YouTube. And sophisticated techniques for collecting relevant news online, technologies that troll for news of interest, have barely begun to enter the mainstream.
Blogger and former old-media editor Jeff Jarvis (buzzmachine.com) calls himself an "online triumphalist," but says few thinking people believe "online and blogs are going to kill other media." He argues, though, that time is a "flawed measure" of media usage, pointing out how much longer it takes to get the same amount of news from TV than from reading. "Online necessarily offers more relevance," Jarvis says, "the sense I can get to the specifics I care about."
Professional journalists, he says, will have to adapt to being "more of a moderator" of all the world's news, now available on your computer screen, "than just an author."
But the authors, the Pew study suggests, are still doing pretty well with the American people. Yes, the percentage of people who read a newspaper declined in 10 years from 50 to, best interpretation, 43 percent. But that's still a huge and very marketable chunk of the population, and old media are striving to adapt: The Washington Post Web site, for instance, is reportedly planning to buck newspaper-site tradition by adding links to outside news sources on its site. "While the problems of the old media are there and real and they often get widely discussed in media circles," Jurkowitz says, "for all that they are still around, they are still relied upon, and the Internet has not obliterated them."
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