Media Notes: A new poll shows 'old media' holding their own in an Internet world

Still on the job:CNN's John King interviews President Obama for a segment that aired in September 2009.
Still on the job:CNN's John King interviews President Obama for a segment that aired in September 2009. (Screen Capture Via Cnn)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010

With news and gossip leaping off every laptop screen, smartphone and Facebook page, the common wisdom these days is that traditional news outlets are doomed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral: People are spending more time following the news, rather than giving in to other distractions.

Traditional media are holding onto mindshare: A new Pew Research Center study says that on a given day, Americans spend 57 minutes getting the news from television, newspapers or radio, just as they did in 2000. But they spend an additional 13 minutes each day consuming news on the Web -- a figure that doesn't even include stories viewed on cellphones. Highly educated folks, not surprisingly, are driving the increase.

Not everyone is an addict; 17 percent of those surveyed said they got no news of any kind the previous day. But the 83 percent who did are drawing their information from a wider variety of sources.

Digital news is not "crowding out" the old media and may even be "reinvigorating them," says Andrew Kohut, the center's president. He noted that nearly one in 10 people under 30 volunteered that they read the New York Times online when asked to name a few Web sites they use for news and information. Just as the advent of television didn't kill radio, peaceful coexistence may be possible.

It's hardly time to uncork the champagne, as the overall picture is mixed for the struggling newspaper business. A mere 26 percent of those surveyed said they read a newspaper in print the previous day, down from 38 percent in 2006 -- a sobering drop, to be sure. But the decline was partially offset by the Web sites that newspapers are fashioning as a lifeline to the future. When online editions are added to print readership, 37 percent of Americans say they got news from newspapers the day before, down from 43 percent in 2006. In short, it could have been worse.

But the message is clear: Building readership online isn't just a promising sideline for those with printing presses, it's a question of survival. Only 19 percent said they read a magazine the previous day, down from a third in 1994. By contrast, 58 percent say they regularly watch television news. Online, the Web sites mentioned most often were Yahoo (28 percent), CNN (16), Google (15) and MSN (14 ).

The Pew report confirms a strikingly partisan shift among cable news viewers. Four in 10 Republicans now say they regularly watch Fox News, home to the likes of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Just 12 percent of Republicans describe themselves as regular CNN viewers, and for MSNBC, with its lineup of liberal hosts, the figure is 6 percent. Back in 2002, the study says, Republicans were as likely to watch CNN (28 percent) as Fox News (25 percent).

On the flip side, Democrats make up 21 percent of the Fox audience, 47 percent of CNN's and 53 percent of MSNBC's.

Media outlets have varying appeal. Sixty-four percent of regular CNN viewers say they rely on the network for the latest news and headlines; 44 percent say that for Fox, but 22 percent offer other reasons, such as views and opinions. About a third of Wall Street Journal and New York Times readers, by contrast, say they are particularly attracted by in-depth reporting.

Ideology is an obvious factor. While eight in 10 Americans who regularly tune in to Hannity or Rush Limbaugh are conservative, regular audiences for MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow -- and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert -- are twice as liberal as the general public.

One telling note about the age of Obama: the left is getting grumpy. In 2008, when Barack Obama was a candidate, 67 percent of liberal Democrats said they enjoyed the news a lot. Now, with his presidency nearing its midpoint, just 45 percent feel that way. Conservative Republicans have held steady in their enjoyment: 57 percent then, 56 percent now.

Every survey of this kind finds that big majorities believe the media are biased, and this one is no exception. Eighty-two percent of Americans say they see at least some bias in news coverage, most often liberal bias. As for those convinced that news organizations show a lot of bias, 62 percent of Republicans feel this way, compared with 47 percent of Democrats (and 53 percent of independents).

And there's an interesting footnote about how much the public knows about politics, compared with common Beltway assumptions. Twenty-two percent in the survey could identify Eric Holder as attorney general. Among the better-informed viewers of Fox and MSNBC opinion shows, that figure rises to . . . 30 percent.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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