Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Internet Sapping Broadcast News Audience

Introduction and Summary

Traditional news outlets are feeling the impact of two distinct and powerful trends. Internet news has not only arrived, it is attracting key segments of the national audience. At the same time, growing numbers of Americans are losing the news habit. Fewer people say they enjoy following the news, and fully half pay attention to national news only when something important is happening. And more Americans than ever say they watch the news with a remote control in hand, ready to dispatch uninteresting stories. To some extent, these trends are affecting all traditional media, but broadcast news outlets — both national and local — have been the most adversely affected.

These are the principal findings of the Pew Research Center’s biennial survey of the national news audience, which documents the rapid emergence of the Internet as a news source, as well as a significant decline in regular viewership of broadcast television news. Fully one-in-three Americans now go online for news at least once a week, compared to 20% in 1998. And 15% say they receive daily reports from the Internet, up from 6% two years ago. At the same time, regular viewership of network news has fallen from 38% to 30% over this period, while local news viewership has fallen from 64% to 56%.

Among younger and better-educated people, the Internet is making even bigger inroads. Many more college graduates under the age of 50 go on the Internet every day than regularly watch one of the nightly network news broadcasts. And generally, the survey finds that people who are interested in the news and go online tend to watch less network TV news. The survey also finds modest declines in the viewership of television news magazines and the morning news shows, but these slips appear unrelated to Internet news competition.

The digital tide is having less of a direct negative impact on cable TV news, radio and print outlets. The Pew Research Center survey finds no evidence that Internet use is driving down regular use of cable news channels, daily newspapers, or radio news. However, all news outlets are being affected by the public’s slowly declining appetite for the news.

Less than half of the public (45%) now says it enjoys keeping up with the news a great deal and just 48% say they follow national news closely most of the time. Both of these percentages represent a modest decline from two years ago, when 50% said they enjoyed keeping up with the news and 52% reported following national news closely most of the time. But the percentage of Americans saying they enjoy keeping up with the news has fallen steadily since the mid-1990s.

The generational divide on these questions is striking. Just one-in-three young adults (31%) enjoy keeping up with the news. In contrast, well more than half (57%) of those age 50 and over enjoy following the news. While younger people don’t like the news so much, they do like having a wide variety of information sources from which to choose. Older Americans, who have a greater affinity for the news, often feel overwhelmed by the increasingly crowded media landscape.

As a consequence, Internet news is attracting many younger people who have only a marginal interest in the news as well as serious news consumers. In fact, Internet news has a relatively larger place in the lives of those with access who don’t enjoy the news than among those who do. The Internet, with its headline news format and capacity for quick updates, is clearly attractive to this type of consumer. On the other hand, the Internet’s capability for providing more depth on a given subject also appeals to those with large news appetites, such as affluent college graduates.

In that regard, the growth of Internet news has had a dramatic impact on the way Americans, particularly those with access to technology, get information on business and financial matters. For active investors — those who have traded stocks within the past six months — the Internet has largely supplanted traditional media as the leading source for stock quotes and investment advice. The Internet’s capacity for personally-designed news and information is clearly a factor here. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) active traders who log on to the Internet for such information have customized online stock portfolios.

So far, this quiet revolution in financial news has had less of an impact on the general public and less active investors, who still tend to go to the traditional media for stock quotes and advice. But underscoring the general popularity of the Internet for financial news, 16% of all Americans volunteered that they would turn first to the Internet for news if the market were to crash 1,000 points; cable news was mentioned second most frequently, at 14%.

As Americans grow more reliant on the Internet for news, they also have come to find online news outlets more credible. Despite the controversy over news-gathering techniques employed by some Internet sites, those who go online generally give Internet news operations high marks for believability. In fact, the online sites of such well-known news organizations as ABC News get better ratings from Internet users than the ratings accorded the traditional broadcast or print outlets.

But having a familiar name clearly helps. Internet-only news sources such as Yahoo, Netscape and America Online’s News Channel get lower ratings than other, better-known news organizations on the Internet. Still, the believability ratings for these organizations are comparable to those of network television news and other traditional sources. Internet news organizations that specialize in providing original content, such as the online magazines Slate and Salon, were less well-known and got lower ratings from Internet news users.

Other Findings

  • Americans have an ever-expanding appetite for new technology. More than half now own a cell phone, up from 24% just five years ago. One out of five Americans (18%) have a satellite dish, and 5% own a Palm Pilot.
  • As large numbers of younger Americans turn to the Internet for news, the audience for traditional media is aging. Nearly half of those under age 30 (46%) go online for news at least once a week, compared to just 20% of those age 50 and up. These older Americans are far more likely to say they watched TV news (67%) or read a paper (58%) yesterday.

  • More people are finding innovative ways to use technology in their personal lives. A sizable minority (15%) of active investors get stock quotes and market updates via some form of wireless device, such as a cell phone or pager.
  • With the viewership of network news declining, and cable news audiences remaining flat, network’s lead over cable has narrowed to 11 percentage points (51%-40%) from 17 points (57%-40%) in 1998. When speciality channels, such as all-sports ESPN are included, the cable audience is 61%.
  • CNBC, primarily a business network, now draws better than one-in-ten Americans (13%) on a regular basis. But CNBC is the top choice of those active investors who identify television as the main source of stock updates.
  • More than half of Americans (53%) say they wish they had more time to follow the news. Time pressures are a particularly big factor for working women; nearly two-thirds (65%) want more time to follow the news.
  • The remote control has become an indispensable tool for most television news viewers, especially young people. Three-quarters of those under age 30 say they watch the news with the remote in hand; 54% of those over age 50 agree.
  • Men and women have different news interests, and this is reflected in the news they pursue online. Technology is a top draw for men, while women most often seek news on science and health. But overall, weather information is the leading online news topic.
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