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Audience

Audience

How many people use the Web for news? And is that number growing or has it stabilized?

In trying to understand the answers, three trends stand out:

Audience Overall

To get an accurate picture of how many people use the Internet for news, we must first start with the bigger picture of how many use the Internet at all.

At this most basic level – whether you ever go online – the numbers vary from just over half to 70 percent of Americans, depending on how the question is asked.1 When pollsters ask about more regular usage – in the last month or the last week – the data point to a lower number, just over half of Americans in September 2003, according to ComScore Media Metrix.2 The higher numbers are associated with only occasional use.

Online News Audience

What percent of these online users go there for news? Most of them do. According to surveys, anywhere from half to 70 percent of those online get news there.3 Extrapolating, that would put the number of total online news users at 80 million to 105 million Americans.4

Percent of Internet Users Who Access News Online Each Week
Design Your Own Chart
Source: UCLA Center for Communication Policy, ‘’The UCLA Internet Report – Surveying the Digital Future,’’ January 2003, p. 18
Percent of Internet Users Who Get News There
2000 to 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project

The Pew Internet Project found in June 2003 that 69 percent of people online had “ever” gotten news there. That was up from 60 percent three years before. Jupiter Research found in June 2003 that 55 percent of people online had gotten news there “monthly or more frequently” (up slightly from 53 percent a year earlier). A study at UCLA found that 52 percent of those online got news “during a typical week” in 2002.5

Another Pew Internet survey, which asks people if they went online for news “yesterday,” found a smaller number, 26 percent, in June 2003. While this number is lower, getting news remains a perennial top activity online. This suggests that while online news use for many people is not yet a daily activity, its occasional use mirrors people’s online use patterns in general.6

The Question Of Growth

Beyond the latest numbers, there is the question of whether online news use is still growing or whether it has peaked. Here, the data are conflicting.

Pew and Jupiter show the percentage of people that go online for news mostly growing. The UCLA study shows it fluctuating.

But even if the number is stable, if the number of people who go online overall is growing, then a steady percentage of news consumers would signify growth. Pinning this down, however, is difficult.

Pew Research Center data show online usage generally leveled off at around 62 percent in early 2001. The UCLA findings also show it basically flat since 2001. But Jupiter Research predicts that usage of the Internet overall will grow because it expects household penetration – the percentage of homes connected to the Internet – to rise from 63 percent in 2003 to 73 percent in 2007. That would be a gain of 14 million new online households, of which presumably more than half would become news consumers online.7

A shift from dial-up connections to high-speed cable modems and DSL is also occurring in America’s homes. Nine months into 2003, 15 million homes had a cable modem, up 30 percent from the start of the year, according the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.8 This makes getting news online quicker and easier, and opens the door to streaming video and vastly more amounts of data. In the years to come the shift to more bandwidth will transform online news.

The Online Appeal

What attracts people to online news? One appeal is convenience. Part of the rise in news consumption online is occurring at work, a place where in the past people generally did not have the time or means, or found it unacceptable to get news. A May 2003 study by the Online Publishers Association found that 62 percent of at-work Internet users visited a news site in a typical week. (A Jupiter survey in July 2003 found that a quarter of all people followed breaking news at work. Roughly half of the respondents did not have online access, so of those online, the figure would be closer to 50 percent).9

This, as online journalists are quick to point out, is essentially a new group of news consumers. Previously, most news consumption occurred largely at home, at morning and night. Sitting around the office reading the newspaper was frowned upon. Sitting in the office reading news on the computer apparently is not, or in any case is not forbidden.

When people go online for news, they break down into three distinct groups, according to studies of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. About half go online to see what the latest headlines are. Indeed, many online news operations say their “prime time” is the period from 1 to 3 p.m., when people are returning to their jobs after lunch or a mid-day activity. About 30 percent pursue news online after they have encountered it while doing something else online (for instance, checking out information on a portal and seeing the news displayed on the home page), and the rest are pursuing information about a story they have already heard about from another media source.10

Cannibalization of Old Media?

If Web usage does continue to grow, including going online to get the news, it raises a fundamental question: Will the Web kill old media? One longstanding worry among traditional news producers, particularly newspapers, is the fear that as more people turn to online news, it will sharply accelerate the pace at which their audience in the old media will shrink. Research in this area, though, suggests that the threat of technology may not be so cut and dry.

In 2002, nearly three-quarters of users (72 percent) said that they spent the same amount of time reading print newspapers today as they did before they began reading news online, according to Jupiter Research. Less than a quarter (22 percent) reported spending less time than before and a few, 3 percent, even said they spent more.11

A similar pattern holds true for print magazines.12

The Web may be having a greater negative impact on television news, but it still may not be as much as some people think. In the Jupiter study, 36 percent of Internet users indicated that their television viewing time has decreased since going online, 14 percentage points more than for newspaper. About 61 percent said it was the same and 2 percent said it increased.13

A 2000 survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press also found that those who regularly went online reported watching less network television news than two years earlier.14 Fewer watched television news overall, and those who did watched less of it. Meanwhile, viewing among those who did not go online was unchanged.

Amount of Time Online News Users Spent Reading Newspapers, 2002

Weekly minutes, 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Source: UCLA Center for Communication Policy, ‘’The UCLA Internet Report – Surveying the Digital Future,’’ January 2003; PEJ Research
Light use is under 60 minutes a week, medium is 60 to 119 minutes, heavy is 120 minutes or more.

At the same time, however, the Web may be attracting young people to news who have not gravitated to more traditional media. While television and newspapers have been struggling to find ways to attract younger viewers and readers, more than 55 percent of Internet users aged 18 to 34 were getting news online in a typical week in 2002.15

Percent Of Internet Users Accessing News in a Typical Week
By age group, 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Source: UCLA Center for Communication Policy, ‘’The UCLA Internet Report – Surveying the Digital Future,’’ January 2003; PEJ Research
Minutes Spent Reading Online News Weekly
By age group, 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Source: UCLA Center for Communication Policy, ‘’The UCLA Internet Report – Surveying the Digital Future,’’ January 2003; PEJ Research
Amount of Time Online News Users Spent Reading Magazines
Weekly minutes, 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Source: UCLA Center for Communication Policy, ‘’The UCLA Internet Report – Surveying the Digital Future,’’ January 2003; PEJ Research
Light use is under 60 minutes a week, medium is 60 to 119 minutes, heavy is 120 minutes or more.

The data from UCLA add another dimension to understanding the question of cannibalization. They suggest that the Web does not change the basic nature of a person’s news consumption. People generally can be put into one of three categories – heavy, medium or light news consumers.16 According to the UCLA data, heavy consumers of online news are also heavy consumers of newspapers. They read newspapers for an average of 225 minutes a week, a full 10 percent more than the average of online and non-online users combined (which is 201 minutes per week).

Similarly, medium consumers of online news report midlevel usage of newspapers (159 minutes per week). And light consumers of online news are light consumers of newspapers (144 minutes per week, 28 percent less than the overall average). The Web didn’t change their behavior.

Thus the question of whether the Internet is cannibalizing or supplementing other media is complicated. The heaviest users online are also heavy users of old media. And while some substitution is going on, getting people interested in news online could also get them interested in news elsewhere.

All this has implications. It suggests, we would theorize, that news executives perhaps should be less worried about one medium cannibalizing another and more worried about making the news more engaging, relevant and interesting generally, and making their advertising and sponsorship strategies more valuable to the people paying for their products.

At least for now, people spend less time getting news online than they do getting it from other mediums. People report spending roughly two hours a week acquiring news online, a full hour less than they spent reading newspapers, and nearly half an hour less than they did reading magazines. Online news consumption appears to be a way of getting certain kinds of news – perhaps updates, news pertaining to work, looking at something a co-worker has mentioned – but it may be a different kind of consumption than for newspapers and magazines. If that inference is correct, it may be another sign that the mediums may complement each other.

Where People Go Online for News

The other major audience trend in online news is that there already appears to be a shakeout in popularity among sites.

Pinning down where people go is complicated. But the best reckoning suggests not only that the big sites are getting bigger in terms of audience, but also that the very biggest are becoming runaway winners.

Blogs

The structure of the Web allows all people with Internet connections to post their own site with their own observations, which has resulted in the birth of millions of Web logs or “blogs,” which can be periodically updated Web pages containing a single author’s thoughts. For many people, this is the most exciting part of online journalism, the promise of the Web come to life.

Measuring the total number of blogs is something of an impossible task. The number is certainly in the millions, thanks to easy access to hosting services and home pages. Perseus Development Corp., an Internet survey software company, estimated that the number of blogs on blog-hosting services to be 4.12 million. While this number is staggering, Perseus also estimated that 66 percent of these were abandoned. A quarter of all these blogs were only used once. Just 2.6 percent of the blogs (around 100,000) were updated weekly. Of the active blogs, only 10% linked to a traditional news site. And who is the average blogger? Perseus found that more than half (52 percent) of bloggers were teenagers and 40 percent were people in their 20s.17

On the other hand, this is a broader definition of bloggers than some have in mind. In some cases yesterday’s influential print columnists are today’s bloggers. Journalists like Mickey Kaus (formerly of The New Republic), Howard Kurtz (of The Washington Post), Virginia Postrel (former editor of Reason) and Rich Lowry (editor of National Review), are people whose blogs are often cited by the old media and thus whose influence reaches much farther than their direct audience. The Web log culture is fascinating and still evolving.

Whether it will become a serious online presence and influence on journalism remains unclear. Several panelists at the Online News Association’s 2003 conference predicted that 2004 would be the year of blogging.18 At this point, though, the hard data suggest that its influence, like journals of opinion in print such as The Nation or The Weekly Standard, will be more intellectual than commercial. In 2003, many political analysts credited conservative blogs for playing a role in the resignation of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott when the mainstream press did not do much with the story of his comments in favor of past segregation. Whether blogs come to define the Internet or represent only a small but appealing aspect of it, is still a question.

Top Sites

In contrast with the young and transitory nature of these 100,000 active bloggers, the biggest news sites appear to be stable and growing rapidly.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, traffic on the top 20 news sites on the Web grew by 70 percent from May 2002 to October 2003. That is far greater than any of the reported increases in either online users overall in 2003 or the percentage of those users who were going to all news sites. Many sites saw increases in visitors between the last six months of 2002 and the first six months of 2003. The Web sites of the cable news channels saw their audience sizes grow, Fox News by 45 percent, MSNBC by 21 percent and CNN by 7 percent. Yahoo and The Washington Post each had a 12 percent increase. Increases also occurred at the local level: Hearst’s combined Web site traffic increased 18 percent and Gannett’s rose 6 percent.19 The fact that traffic to these sites is swelling has a bearing on the economic side, too. As these sites draw sizable audiences, they will attract more advertising dollars.

In October 2003, the top 20 sites drew an average of 8.5 million “unique visitors” – that is, 8.5 million individuals – per site. And the biggest of the big do even better. The two most popular sites for news, CNN and MSNBC.com, each attracted more than 20 million unique visitors in October. The next most popular news Web sites, Yahoo and AOL, attracted 17 million and 16 million a month, respectively. Some online executives say that their internal audience numbers are even higher, in part because at-work users are understated in the online audience ratings.

Average Monthly Unique Visitors for Top 20 News Web Sites
May 2002 Through November 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen//NetRatings, Editor and Publisher Online
Top News Web Sites
By average monthly unique visitors, January through October 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen//NetRatings, Editor and Publisher Online
Knight Ridder figure does not include January through March; Tribune figure does not include January and February.

After the four biggest sites, there is a massive dropoff. The fifth site on the list averages half as many visits as AOL. And most of what makes up the rest are not single Web sites but combinations of various Web sites by a single owner (Gannett’s 99 local newspapers or the combined sites of the Knight Ridder newspapers, for instance). After the big four, indeed, only two others on the top 10 list are actually individual sites, those of The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Top Four Online News Sites by Unique Visitors
May 2002 Through November 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen//NetRatings, Editor and Publisher Online
Top 10 is based on average monthly unique visitors for the first 11 months of 2003. Blank spaces indicate that a site did not appear among the top 20 news sites for that month.

In 2004, these top sites are poised to see continuing gains in audience as they pour resources into coverage of the political year. These sites are turning to a variety of tools, some unique to the web-including candidate backgrounders, access to voting records, matching users views to the candidates, allowing users to compare candidates by issue, and more during the presidential campaign.20

Time Spent

When it comes to time spent, the list of the top four sites is slightly different than the top four in usage. The top four sites – The New York Times, Fox News, CNN and AOL – are consistently those that are able to keep visitors the longest, an average of over 29 minutes a month per unique visitor. The average for the rest is just under 19 minutes a month.24

Conclusion

The Web is journalism’s growth area. More people are going online everyday, and while the growth rate may be slowing, as is inevitable with new technologies, growth still is predicted to continue, and with it, so is consumption of news online. This may be causing some erosion in the use of old media, but it is not across the board. At least so far, the Internet may be hurting television viewing more than newspaper and magazine reading. Instead, the bigger question about the Web has to do with economics.

Footnotes

1. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found just over 60 percent of people 18 and over went online in 2002. When people as young as 12 years old are added to the total, a UCLA survey put the number in 2002 at 71 percent.

2.The first number comes from Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Public’s News Habits Little Changes by Sept. 11,” June 9, 2002, p. 70. Adults over 18 were surveyed. The second number comes from the UCLA Center for Communication Policy, ”The UCLA Internet Report – Surveying the Digital Future,” January 2003, p.18. Respondents were 12 and older. In both cases, the data were weighted against census demographics in order to estimate usage for the entire population. See also comScore, “comScore Media Metrix Announces Top 50 U.S. Internet Property Rankings for September 2003,” press release, October 21, 2003. comScore derives its numbers on overall Internet through a continuous telephone survey using a random digit dialing (RDD) method.

3. Pew Internet and American Life Project, tracking surveys, June 2003; UCLA Internet Report – Year Three, p. 18. Jupiter Research, “Individual User Survey,” June 2003, www.jupiterresearch.com

4. We calculated the possible range of online news users by starting with comScore’s September 2003 online universe estimate of 150 million Internet users. News use estimates range from 55 percent (Jupiter Research) and 70 percent (Pew Internet and American Life Project), which would put the number of online news consumers at between 83 and 105 million).

5. Pew Internet and American Life Project, tracking surveys, June 2003; UCLA Internet Report – Year Three, p. 18. Jupiter Research, “Individual User Survey,” June 2003, www.jupiterresearch.com

6. Pew Internet and American Life Project, tracking surveys, June 2003

7. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Public’s News Habits Little Changed By Sept. 11,” June 9, 2002, p. 70; 2003 UCLA Internet Report – Year Three, p. 18, Jupiter Research “Jupiter Consumer Survey Report: Technology in the Home,” 2003, www.jupiterresearch.com

8. David Wilkerson, “Broadband, digital boost cable in Q3,” CBS MarketWatch, November 19, 2003

9.Online Publishers Association, “At Work Internet Audience Media Consumption Study,” May 2003, www.online-publishers.org; Jupiter Research, “The At-Work Audience: Programming for the Office,” 2003, www.jupiterresearch.com

10. Pew Internet and American Life Project Research, e-mail from Lee Rainie, director, November, 21, 2003.

11. Jupiter Research, “Individual Consumer Survey,” June 2003, www.jupiterresearch.com

12. Heavy online news users report spending nearly three hours a week (165 minutes) reading magazines, 27 minutes more than most people, according to the data. Medium and light online news users similarly reflect their magazine habits.

13. Jupiter Research, “Individual Consumer Survey,” June 2003, www.jupiterresearch.com

14. “Internet Sapping Broadcast News Audience,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, June 11, 2000, P. 1. In 1998, 59 percent of both Internet and non-Internet users reported watching nightly television network news on a typical day. In 2000, the percentage of Internet users who regularly watched had dropped to 53 percent. In addition, the number of Internet users who reported watching at least half an hour a day of network television news dropped from 48 percent in 1998 to 40 percent in 2000. Among non-Internet users, Pew found virtually no dropoff in the amount of time spent with network news.

15. 2003 UCLA Internet Report – Year Three; PEJ Research. The UCLA Internet Report is an annual survey of 2,000 households in the United States. First conducted in 2000, the sample includes both Internet users and nonusers. For more information and a copy of the 2003 report “Surveying the Digital Future,” visit the UCLA Center for Communication Policy at www.ccp.ucla.edu.

16. Most people fall into one of three categories of news consumption according to many researchers–news junkies, moderate users and light users of the news. The Web attracts all three. As of 2002, more than a third (39%) of the online news audience were news junkies, spending more than two hours a week online getting news. Roughly the same percent (38%) reported medium usage (60-119 minutes) and only 23% said they were light users (less than 60 minutes a week).

17. Perseus Development Corporation, “The Blogging Iceberg: Of 4.12 Million Hosted Weblogs, Most Little Seen, Quickly Abandoned,” white paper. 2003, http://www.perseus.com/blogsurvey/thebloggingiceberg.html

18. 2003 Online News Association Annual Conference, November 15, 2003, Evanston, Illinois.

19. The list of the top 20 news and current events Web sites comes from Nielsen//NetRatings, and is displayed on the Editor and Publisher Online site. The rankings are calculated through monitoring the usage of a panel of Web users to determine the sites with the greatest number of unique visitors. Nielsen//NetRatings classifies news Web sites according to the media companies’ preferences; thus, some newspaper Web sites are counted separately in these rankings while others are aggregated for a single ranking for the entire chain. Several of the entries on the Top 20 list are actually groups of sites owned by the same company.

20. Mark Glaser, “Best Coverage of the US Elections,” Online Journalism Review, December 11, 2003. Available online at: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/glaser/1071184205.php

21.Nielsen//NetRatings, “Round-the-Clock News Coverage of the War in Iraq Draws Surfers Online, According to Nielsen//NetRatings,” press release, March 27, 2003

22. Pew Internet and American Life Project, “The Internet and the Iraq War,” April 1, 2003, p.5

23. Nielsen//NetRatings, “American Web Surfers Boost Traffic to Foreign News Sites in March,” press release, April 24, 2003

24. Nielsen//NetRatings, “Top 20 News and Current Events Sites” data, Editor and Publisher Online, www.editorandpublisher.com

25. Nielsen//NetRatings, “Top 20 News and Current Events Sites” data, Editor and Publisher Online, www.editorandpublisher.com

26. Nielsen//NetRatings, “Top 20 News and Current Events Sites” data, Editor and Publisher Online, www.editorandpublisher.com