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The Internet: News for the News-Weary
Political Junkie

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, June 19, 2000

Will the last network news watcher please turn off the set?

It's not that bad. At least not yet. But a new study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press suggests that the Internet is decimating the broadcast news audience.

Moreover, this erosion is part of an even larger trend away from all types of news, reports Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center, who led the research team that conducted the study.

"Growing numbers of Americans are losing the news habit," Kohut writes. "Fewer people say they enjoy following the news, and fully half pay attention to national news only when something important is happening."

This trend, he notes, affects all traditional news media, including newspapers and magazines, and "broadcast news outlets, both national and local, have been the most adversely affected."

About one in three Americans now go online for news at least once a week. And one in six say they receive daily news reports from the 'Net--double the proportion from just two years ago, according to the Pew Center's biennial survey of the national news audience.

"At the same time, regular viewership of network news has fallen from 38 percent to 30 percent over this period, while local news viewership has fallen from 64 percent to 56 percent," Kohut says.

Newspaper and magazine readership has fallen off moderately in recent years, he says. But the impact of the new media environment on television news has been more noticeable. "Only 55 percent now report having watched the news or a news program on television 'yesterday.' This is down from 59 percent in 1998 and 1996, and from a high of 74 percent as recently as 1994."

Older Americans are much more likely than twentysomethings to say they watched television news (67 percent) or read a newspaper (58 percent) the previous day. Among young adults, 39 percent say they read a newspaper yesterday and 44 percent saw TV news.

Pew researchers found that the Internet is stealing the audience from traditional news outlets, not merely supplementing them: "Indeed, as the number of people regularly getting news online has grown, so has the share of Internet news consumers who say they are using other news sources--like television--less often."

The survey found that nearly one in five--18 percent--of those who get news online at least once a week say they now use other sources less frequently. That's up from 11 percent two years ago.

"What's more, several measures show that the decline in the television news audience over the past two years has been greater among Internet users--including users who regularly go online for news--than among non-users," Kohut says.

The survey also found that as network viewership declines, the percentage of Americans who say they "regularly" watch cable remains flat. As a consequence, the networks' lead over cable has fallen to 11 percentage points, from 17 points two years ago. Today, when specialty channels such as all-sports ESPN are included, the regular cable audience is 61 percent, Kohut says.

The survey found that the love affair is deepening between Americans and their new electronic gadgets. More than half of all adults now own a cell phone, up from 24 percent five years ago--and there is no cell-phone version of the digital divide: "Men, women and people of all races are equally likely to use a cell phone"--though older Americans do "lag behind," Kohut reports. One in four Americans has a pager, and one in six has a DVD player. Nearly one in five has a satellite dish, and 5 percent own a Palm Pilot.

"The remote control has become an indispensable tool for most television news viewers, especially young people," the Pew team reports. "Three quarters of those under age 30 say they watch the news with the remote in hand; 54 percent of those over age 50 agree."

People are using new technology in new ways. One in six investors, the survey found, obtain stock quotes and market updates from their cell phone, pager or some other electronic device.

The explosion of new technologies and the proliferation of news sources has opened up a substantial generation gap. Younger Americans love it: 70 percent of those under the age of 30 say they welcome a variety of options for retrieving news from many different sources. But among those 65 and older, four in 10 acknowledge they feel "overwhelmed by the number of news sources currently available."

Kohut also reports the continuing decline in the proportion of Americans who like following the news and keeping up with current events. Currently, fewer than half--45 percent-say they "enjoyed keeping up with the news a great deal"--down from 54 percent in 1995. Less than a third--31 percent--of all twentysomethings in the Pew poll enjoyed the news, compared to 57 percent of those 50 and older.

One modestly hopeful sign: The Internet is attracting those who don't enjoy the news. "Fully one-quarter (26 percent) of online users who say they don't like following the news still turn to the Internet for news at least three days a week. In fact, these lukewarm news consumers are more likely to log onto the Internet for news than watch network, local and cable television news."

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 2000 The Washington Post Company

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