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    What America Thinks
    The Move to 'Net News

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, June 15, 1998

    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:

  • The Mainstream News Audience: This group makes up about 20 percent of all adults. They are big consumers of broadcast, cable and local news, but don't seek out either "high- or low-brow news" such as PBS or "Inside Edition." They're more likely to be men than women, and are newspaper readers who follow local and national news but stay away from international news.

  • The Basically Broadcast Audience: Members of this TV-tied group comprise about 17 percent of the public. They are regular viewers of local TV news and network newsmagazines who say they "like television magazine-show explanations of the news." They don't watch cable news, and are disproportionately female. Their top news interests are health, community and crime news.

  • The Very Occasional Audience: About 18 percent of all Americans fall into this group. As the name indicates, they're at the bottom of nearly every news consumption category. Barely a third read yesterday's newspaper, and even fewer – one in four – watched news on TV yesterday. They're low-income and disproportionately male. "Most don't even follow local news regularly," Pew researchers wrote. They're also "hard to please: say they enjoy keeping up, but are relatively dissatisfied with television news choices."

  • The Constant Audience: About 13 percent of the public are news junkies who are "high consumers of everything; sources range from National Public Radio to tabloid TV." Eight in 10 regularly watch local TV news, six in 10 watch network news, more than half read a newspaper yesterday, a third watch tabloid TV, and nearly as many said they listen regularly to NPR. Despite their voracious appetite for news, members of this group were curiously "not particularly well informed," according to the Pew researchers. They liked nearly every kind of news, and particularly liked "emotional and entertaining news delivered by caring anchors," the analysts reported.

  • Serious News Audience: About 12 percent of the country falls into this category. They listen to NPR, read high-brow magazines and the daily newspaper but avoid local news. They're keenly interested in politics, international affairs and science/ technology. These consumers "would miss their morning paper" and place "little value on emotional, entertaining news and caring anchors." They're slightly more likely to be men than women and are better educated, more affluent and more Republican than other Americans.

  • The Tabloid News Audience: About 14 percent of all adults. Everything the serious news audience is, these people aren't. They're far more likely than other Americans to regularly watch tabloid TV, read personality magazines, watch "tell-all TV" ("The Jerry Springer Show" and its ilk). They're disproportionately female, disproportionately interested in crime, entertainment and sports news, not too well educated and more "racially diverse" than other groups.

    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 morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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