About 12% of Americans go online to get information on current events, public issues and politics. On average, one third of these said they go online for news as many as three days a week. This level of online use has remained fairly stable across six studies completed by the Center this year. Compared to the general public, consumers of online news are younger, more educated, wealthier, and more likely to be male. They are more likely to live in the suburbs and slightly less likely to live in rural areas.[NOTE: General population figures are based on 4,475 interviews conducted in April, July and September 1996.]
Those Americans who choose to go online to get news look much like the rest of the country in their use of traditional media, suggesting that the new media is not replacing the old media as a source of news. Seventy-two percent said they read a daily newspaper regularly, and 61% said they watched TV news yesterday. Online users are somewhat more likely than the general public to have listened to radio news yesterday (52% vs. 44%).
Among online users, news seeking is a popular activity. Fully seven-in-ten users said they go online to get current events information or political news. Almost one-in-five (18%) do so at least three days per week. This latter group of regular online news seekers are more likely to be heavier consumers of traditional media sources. They are more likely than other online users to read a newspaper regularly and to have spent more than half an hour doing so yesterday, and are more likely to have watched the news on television. Equal percentages of regular news consumers and other users said they listened to the radio news yesterday. Not surprisingly, the regular online news consumers were 11% points more likely than other users to say they had a “great deal” of interest in politics.
There is considerable crossover among online users between use of traditional media and use of the Internet. Forty-two percent of all online users, and 73% of regular online news consumers, said they have gone online for more information on a story they first learned about from the print media or television. Those who have used the online facilities the longest time (more than three years) are more likely to take advantage of this supplementing opportunity (53%) than those who are newcomers to the Net (34% of those who first went online in the previous six months). Demographically, users in rural areas and small towns (45% and 47%) are more likely than those in large cities (38%) or suburbs (39%) to go online for additional information about stories they first saw in the traditional media, possibly reflecting the limitations of the traditional media available to them locally.
Not all news consumption is intentional. Half the online users interviewed said they are exposed to news on current events, public issues or politics incidental to going online for another purpose. This is true both of regular online news consumers (64%) and other online users (50%). College-age users (18 to 24 years old) are the most likely to say they encounter news unintentionally.
The path used to reach the Internet seems to affect whether or not the online user will be exposed to news. Sixty-three percent of those who use a commercial online service said they have run into news accidentally, compared to 56% of those who have a direct Internet connection from work or school. This phenomenon is much less common among those users who have not yet ventured onto the World Wide Web; only 39% of these users said they have seen news when not seeking it.
Political Activity Online
The Internet is being used as a new form of political communication and participation by a small but significant number of online users. Fully 17% of users said they had contacted or e-mailed groups, organizations, or public officials about political issues or public policy questions. About half of these used the Internet this way at least once every few weeks. College graduates (22%) and users over age 50 (22%) were more likely than others to engage in this type of activity. Fewer of those new to the Internet use e-mail as a means of political communication compared to those who have been online more than three years.
One-in-ten online users (11%) went online to discuss politics, much like the 10% who answered a similar question in the Center’s June 1995 survey. Altogether, almost one fourth of users (23%) engaged in one of the two activities (online discussion or political e-mail), and 6% engaged in both.
Election News Consumers
Ten percent of those who voted in 1996 went online for news about the elections, according to Pew’s November post-election poll. An earlier series of Center surveys, beginning in February found that 3% to 5% of the American public went online for news specifically about the 1996 Presidential campaign. Election news consumers tend to be more well educated, more affluent and slightly younger than the public as a whole. They are also disproportionately male.
Among online users in the current survey, 22% said they went online for election news, about half of these at least one day a week. However, the market for election news online was substantially smaller than that for subjects like technology, science, business, and even entertainment.
Technology Most Popular Topic
The most popular topics for online news consumers are those which reflect the Internet’s traditional strengths: technology, and science and health. Almost half (46%) of online users said they sometimes look for news about technology. This number rose to 52% among men in general and is even higher among men over 50 years of age. Science and health (42%) were popular news topics among both men and women and across age groups. Almost four-in- ten (38%) said they sometimes seek business news.
Other findings of interest:
- Local news was the least popular type of news out of those listed, but still garnered the attention of 19% of users in a medium more known for its global reach.
- Most popular for those under age 24 was entertainment news (51%), a topic which only attracted 20% of users over age 50.
- News users in rural areas outpace others in their use of several categories of online news, including technology (55%), science and health (49%), weather (41%), and international news (39%).
- Longtime online users (over three years) are significantly more likely than newcomers to report accessing news in all the categories except sports, entertainment, and local news.
- Online news users who say they go online for both work and pleasure are more likely to consume all types of news, except business news, than those who say they go online solely for either work or pleasure.
News Seekers’ Destinations
Given America Online’s dominance as a gateway to the Internet, it is not surprising that AOL was named by more news seekers than any other service or site as their most frequent source of news about current events or politics. When these news consumers were asked to indicate whether they had visited a specific list of popular news sites, the Web sites of the traditional media organizations came out on top. Twenty-seven percent of all online users visit the Web sites of national newspapers such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, and 23% go online to the TV network sites.
Local news and information sites (a general category rather than a specific site) also made a strong showing — almost one- in- five (19%) online users said they access a Web site devoted to news or information about their local community, significantly more than went online to the Web sites of either Clinton or Dole (7% each). Online users in the South and West are more likely than those in other regions to use local Web sites (24% and 20%, vs. 15% in the Midwest and 13% in the East).
Younger users (age 18 to 29) were more likely than the rest of the population to visit the network TV sites (30% vs. 18%). They were also more likely than adults over 50 to visit the Clinton/Gore (10% vs. 3%) and Dole/Kemp (9% vs. 4%) home pages. Other sites which show generation gaps: Rock the Vote (9% of those under 24 vs. 3% of those aged 30 – 49 and less than 1% of those over 50), and MSNBC (18% of those age 25 – 29, but only 6% of those over 50).
Looking for Election News
The most popular destinations for online election news seekers were the Web sites of major news organizations (50%), followed by the news sites of commercial online services such as AOL or Compuserve (38%). Less popular were the candidates’ own Web sites (25%) and specific political information sites such as PoliticsNow (15%).
Within the category “major news organizations”, more election news seekers said they used the Web sites of national newspapers (38%) than the sites of the TV networks (25%). When asked about a list of specific sites, election news consumers picked CNN/Time AllPolitics most often (40%). Candidate and party sites were next in popularity, along with C-SPAN’s Web site.
The vast majority of election news seekers in 1996 were looking for news of the Presidential election (90%), but a third of them were also seeking news about the Congressional elections. Those looking for Congressional information were more likely to say they used specific political sites (23%) than the average consumer (15%). About a quarter (24%) of election news consumers searched out information about the local elections in their area.
Online consumers of election news had interests beyond politics. They were significantly more likely than the average online user to also consume news about science, business, entertainment, the international arena, sports and even local news.
Online news users gave most news sites modest ratings for usefulness. Roughly a quarter said the site they visited was “very useful,” and approximately two-thirds said the sites were somewhat useful. The top rated sites were CNN/Time AllPolitics and the Wall Street Journal home page. Local news sites also received high marks for usefulness, even compared with the large commercial sites (34% very useful). Least helpful were the more strictly political sites, including the pages created by the White House, the two parties and the Dole/Kemp home page.
Why Get Election News Online?
More than half (53%) of those who go online for election news said they did so because they did not get all the news and information they wanted from traditional news sources. At the same time, however, the most popular destinations for those dissatisfied with traditional news organizations remained the Web sites of traditional news organizations (51%). Republicans and Independents who lean Republican were more likely to cite the limitations of traditional news sources than Democrats and Democratic leaners (57% vs. 49%). They were also 10 percentage points more likely to say they liked online election news because it reflected their values (28% vs. 18%).
The second most cited reason for seeking election news online was convenience (45%). Twenty-six percent said they used online election sources because they could get information there which they could not find elsewhere, and a similar percentage (24%) said the Web offers news sources that reflect their own interests and values.
Given a chance to say whether they went online for election news because they enjoy following politics or because they felt it their duty to be well informed, the majority of election news consumers chose duty (59%) over enjoyment (38%). Those who said they enjoyed politics are slightly more educated than the duty bound.
Election Related Activity Online
Users who went online for election news in the months before the contest also engaged in substantial political activity. About one third of these election news seekers registered their own opinion by participating in an electronic poll online (34%), giving out information about themselves (31%), or joining an online discussion or “chat” group (31%). Over half (56%) downloaded information to keep for themselves.
Overall, fully three quarters (76%) of those who went online for information about the elections engaged in at least one of the above activities, and 23% engaged in at least three of the four mentioned. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to download information, but in other respects members of the two parties behaved similarly. Those who went online via an Internet access provider rather than using a commercial online service downloaded more often (66% vs. 53%) and more often gave out information about themselves (37% vs. 27%).