By Richard Morin
By Richard Morin
America's appetite for network news is in eclipse and newspapers are holding their own, while the proportion of Americans who get their news from the Internet is growing at astonishing speed, according to a new survey of America's news habits.
At the same time, America is fragmenting into distinct audiences with dramatically different news interests an explosion of diversity that would appear to signal the death of any news outlet seeking to reach a "mass audience."
"Overall Americans are reading, watching and listening to the news just as often as they were two years ago," reported analysts who sifted through the results of the latest Pew Research Center biennial news consumption survey. "But the type of news Americans follow and the way they follow it are being fundamentally reshaped by technological change and the post-Cold War news climate."
The proportion of Americans who get their news from the Internet is growing "at an astonishing rate," particularly among younger, better educated and more affluent Americans. From 1995 to 1998, the percentage of Americans getting news from the Internet at least once a week increased from 4 percent to 20 percent.
At the same time, "watching varied cable news outlets is now just as common as viewing network news programming." The percentage of Americans who only watch nightly and local television news dropped from 30 percent in 1993 to 15 percent in the latest survey. "The fickle mood of today's news consumers is further illustrated by the fact that over half of Americans watch the news with a remote control in hand," Pew analysts wrote, clicking from channel to channel to find the news they want.
What do they want? Not national or foreign news. The survey found sharp, continued declines in interest in national and international news. As a consequence, viewership of CNN remains in its mid-1990s slump. "Strong interest in news closer to home is sustaining audiences for local television news and daily newspapers," they wrote. Similarly, the audiences for newsmagazines as well as for television newsmagazines also are unchanged from 1996.
No news or at least less news is apparently good news for many younger Americans. Just a third of those between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed that they "enjoy keeping up with the news a lot," compared with two out of three Americans 65 or older.
But younger Americans are far more excited about the variety of information sources available today, ranging from TV news shows, magazines and computer information services. Three out of four in this age group said they liked "so many information sources to choose from," compared with barely half of all seniors.
Pew researchers identified six groups of news consumers, based on how respondents in their national sample of 3,002 randomly selected adults answered survey questions about their news choices, habits and values. This news typology revealed "the diversity if not fragmentation of today's news audiences." The groups they identified include:
Pew analysts reported few common links between these audience types except one. "Ironically, the daily newspaper, the oldest format, is the only news source used regularly by a majority of all groups. Local TV news generates the largest audiences in many, but not all of the groups. Other news formats are popular in only a few of the groups."
They found even more variation in news interests. There was general but not universal interest expressed in local, health and crime news, "political news from Washington is only followed very closely by significant percentages of the Serious News and Constant audiences. And international and cultural news attract the Serious News audience in substantial numbers," but nobody else.
This diversity of interests is the key to understanding the fundamental changes sweeping the news industry, from declining interest in network news to the explosive growth of the Internet and represent a significant if not impossible challenge to "the news media's ability to draw and maintain a mass audience," Pew researchers concluded.
Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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