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Audience Behavior

Online
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism and the Pew Internet & American Life Project
Audience Behavior

The Internet and cell phones are changing people’s relationship to news.

On a typical day, 61% of Americans get news online, which puts the Internet just behind television as a news source and ahead of newspapers. And more than a quarter of adults now commonly access the Internet on their phones and PDAs, adding yet another layer of change in consumers’ relationship with news.

And how they interact with the news, what they are most likely to learn there, and what they do in response, are different in the digital space than it is in older platforms. It is making news more portable, perpetual, personalized and participatory.1

Several newer technology developments are shaping this new environment:  First, social media sites and blogs have helped the news become a social experience in fresh ways for consumers. People use their social networks to filter, assess, and react to news. Second, mobile connectivity via laptops and cell phones has turned news gathering and news awareness into an anytime, anywhere affair for a segment of avid news watchers.

To explore this, PEJ and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project took two new steps for this year’s State of the News Media Report. First we surveyed 2,259 American adults on landlines and cell phones about their news consumption habits.  Some resulting data was released on March 1, 2010. Second, we conducted a close analysis of consumer behavior to news sites using Nielsen’s NetView tool, a database of Nielsen’s online audience measurements.

The survey found that Americans have become news grazers. On a typical day, nearly half of Americans now get news from four to six different platforms, including online, TV and print.

And even online people graze across multiple news sources. Only 21% say they tend to rely primarily on one destination; only a third even say they have a favorite news website. But these online news grazers do not range far. Most (57%) rely mostly on two-to-five websites. Only 12% use more than six.

The analysis of Nielsen’s usage data, written as a separate, special report-LINK, reveals that traffic is highly concentrated at the top. Among news sites that attract 500,000 monthly visitors or more, the top 10% of the most popular sites – largely sites tied to legacy media – attract half the traffic. But no one keeps visitors very long.  The average visitor spends only 3 minutes 4 seconds per session on the typical news sites.

Who gets their news online?

Online news users skew younger than the general adult population.  About two-thirds of online news users (68%) are under age 50, including 29% who are under age 30.  Given their younger age profile, it is not surprising that those in this group are also more likely than other Americans to have never been married (24% vs. 9%) and to have young children (36% vs. 17%).  Online news users tend to be employed full-time (50%), two-thirds (67%) have at least some college education (including 22% with a bachelor’s degree and 15% with advanced degrees), and their annual household income trends higher than American adults in general.  Racially, this group skews toward Hispanics and whites; while 50% of non-Hispanic African-Americans get their news entirely offline, the same is true of just 38% of non-Hispanic whites and 32% of Hispanics.


*Indicates a statistically significant difference

Source: PRC-Project for Excellence in Journalism and PRC-Internet & American Life Project Online News Survey – December 28, 2009-January 19, 2010.  N=2,259.  Margin of error is +/-2 percentage points.

Americans explore a wide variety of news topics online

Internet users were asked how many, if any, of 12 news topics they explore online.  The most popular were weather and national events, although fully nine of them are topics that majorities of users explore online.

*Indicates a statistically significant difference

Source: PRC-Project for Excellence in Journalism and PRC-Internet & American Life Project Online News Survey – December 28, 2009-January 19, 2010.  N=2,259.  Margin of error is +/-2 percentage points.

Most individuals use just a handful of online news sources and do not have a favorite

While topic range is wide, online news consumers are fairly economical in the number of Internet sites they use to gather that information.  One in five online news users (21%) say they routinely rely on just one website for their news and information, and 57% rely on two to five websites.  Asked whether they have a favorite online news source, a surprisingly small segment of online news users (35%) say they did.

Men are slightly more likely than women (39% vs. 30%) to have a favored site online, as are college graduates when compared to other online news users (44% vs. 29%) and those with incomes of at least $50,000 annually when compared with those earning less (39% vs. 30%).  The most active online news consumers — individuals who explore the greatest variety of topics online and those who use the greatest number of online sources on a typical day — are also the most likely to have a favorite site.

And indeed people may soon be adding more types of platforms and web applications to their daily mix.  Content creators may be focused less on their home pages and more on the entire experience they can offer.

Among those who have a favorite site, the most popular types of sites are those of major national television news organizations such as CNN and Fox, favored by more than a third of online news consumers who named a favorite site.  Also popular are news aggregators such as Yahoo and MSN, indicating that many online news consumers like to get news about a variety of topics in one place.  Still, among those who named a favorite online news source, 13% cited a local site, such as a television station’s site, a local newspaper’s site, or a website or blog specifically developed to provide local news.

*Indicates a statistically significant difference

Source: PRC-Project for Excellence in Journalism and PRC-Internet & American Life Project Online News Survey – December 28, 2009-January 19, 2010.  N=2,259.  Margin of error is +/-2 percentage points.

Moving beyond favorite sites, we asked online news consumers about sources they turn to on a typical day, ranging from the websites of major newspapers and TV news organizations to posts from journalists and news organizations on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Portal websites like GoogleNews, AOL and Topix are the most commonly used online news sources, visited by over half of online news users on a typical day.  Also faring well are the sites of traditional news organizations with an offline presence, such as CNN, BBC and local or national newspapers.  These responses match closely with audience figures from two web-tracking firms, Hitwise and Nielsen NetView LINK.

For all of the growth in Twitter in 2009, it has yet to be a common source for news. Twitter updates, either from journalists and their news organizations (4%) or from other individuals and organizations including friends and family (6%), were the least used news sources of those asked about.

*Indicates a statistically significant difference

Source: PRC-Project for Excellence in Journalism and PRC-Internet & American Life Project Online News Survey – December 28, 2009-January 19, 2010.  N=2,259.  Margin of error is +/-2 percentage points.

News is pocket-sized

Overall, 26% of all Americans say they get some form of news today via cellphone, which amounts to 33% of cell phone owners. There is every reason to think this number will rise significantly as more and more people get smartphones like the iPhone and phones with Google’s and Microsoft’s mobile operating system on them. (About 80% of American adults have cell phones and 34% of them go online from their phone.)

What topics and applications do those wireless news consumers use? The table below highlights them.


*Indicates a statistically significant difference

Source: PRC-Project for Excellence in Journalism and PRC-Internet & American Life Project Online News Survey – December 28, 2009-January 19, 2010.  N=2,259.  Margin of error is +/-2 percentage points.

On-the-go news consumers:  Who are they?

The typical on-the-go news consumer is a white male, age 34, who has graduated from college and is employed full-time.  Given their younger profile, it is not surprising that 40% of this group are parents of young children (compared with 30% of the general adult population), while 32% have never been married.  One in three (32%) live in households with incomes of $75,000 or more. As a subset of this broader mobile Internet population, on-the-go news consumers share many of these characteristics.

*Indicates a statistically significant difference

Source: PRC-Project for Excellence in Journalism and PRC-Internet & American Life Project Online News Survey – December 28, 2009-January 19, 2010.  N=2,259.  Margin of error is +/-2 percentage points.

On-the-go news consumers maximize their cell phone use.  They are 68% more likely than other cell phone users to text message, more than twice as likely to take pictures with their phones, and almost five times more likely to use their phones to instant message.  They are also especially heavy Internet users: 82% of this on-the-go group are online on a given day, compared with just 67% of other internet users.  And they engage more in other Internet activities such as e-mail (96% vs. 90%), blogging (21% vs. 11%), using social networking sites (75% vs. 48%), and using status update sites like Twitter (30% vs. 14%) at significantly higher rates than other Internet users.


Footnotes

1. Understanding the Participatory News Consumer, March 1, 2010,  http://www.journalism.org/analysis_report/understanding_participatory_news_consumer