The Internet News Audience Goes Ordinary
Introduction and Summary
The Internet audience is not only growing, it is getting decidedly mainstream. Two years ago, when just 23% of Americans were going online, stories about technology were the top news draw. Today, with 41% of adults using the Internet, the weather is the most popular online news attraction.
Increasingly people without college training, those with modest incomes, and women are joining the ranks of Internet users, who not long ago were largely well-educated, affluent men. Moreover, newcomers to the Internet go online much more often for personal reasons than do more experienced online users.
As a consequence, Internet news interests are changing markedly. The popularity of general interest subjects online — from weather patterns to entertainment news — is growing much faster than that of political or international news. According to the Pew Research Center’s nationwide telephone survey of 3,184 adults, the percentage of Americans who go online to access local, entertainment and weather news has grown substantially since 1996. And, while more voters used the Internet for election news and information in 1998 than two years earlier, the percentage of the online public that sought out election information actually diminished.
At the same time, the rate of consumer purchasing on the Internet is skyrocketing. Even before the Christmas rush, 32% of Internet users had bought something online, a leap from just 8% in 1995. If consumers grow more confident about the security of online commerce, this number may climb higher: 61% of Internet users who have not yet made an online purchase cite credit card security as a reason.
Similar growth can be seen in the popularity of email, which continues to be the top Internet draw and shows the same broadening trend. Email is used exclusively for work much less than it was in 1995 (12% vs. 31%). Today, among those who use email, 88% do so for personal reasons either exclusively (41%) or for both personal and work communications (47%). Many email users say they communicate more often with friends and family now that this technology is available.
But with everyday use, some of the mystique of email is fading. Among those who use email at work, the percentage who think that email leads to more frank communication between upper and lower ranks in the workplace fell to 36% in the current survey from 69% in 1995.
The broadening of the Internet population also casts doubt on suggestions that online activities are associated with social isolationism and interpersonal distrust and that the Internet attracts malcontents. The survey, which included 1,993 Internet users, found them to be as engaged — as likely to have visited a friend or family member or called someone just to talk yesterday — as people who don’t go online. Frequent Internet users are just as trusting of other people and the government as the average American, even when factors like age, education and income are taken into account.
News Use Varies
The November 1998 survey that is the principal basis for this report confirms a dramatic growth in online news consumption over the past several years. But Center surveys also find considerable variation in online news reading habits from month-to-month. For instance, while the November survey found 37% of Internet users saying they went online at least once a week to get the news, an April 1998 poll found 55% and a subsequent December survey logged 64%. These fluctuations may reflect differences in the news environment from month-to-month, or they may indicate that “getting the news” online is a somewhat ambiguous activity that blends, in people’s thinking, news consumption with other information-gathering activities.
The comprehensive November survey also provides a mixed answer to the question of whether increasing use of the Internet as a news source is leading to decreasing use of traditional news outlets. Three-in-four Internet news consumers (75%) say they get more of their news from traditional outlets, while only 11% say they are now using print and broadcast outlets less.
Further, the online population is more likely to read a newspaper daily than the offline public. But this is not an apples-to-apples comparison because Internet users tend to be more interested in the news than non-users.
When the media habits of users and non-users are contrasted taking their interest in politics and other demographic differences into account, the survey finds heavy Internet news consumers watching relatively less television news than their offline counterparts but reading newspapers and listening to radio news just as often.
The survey finds other indications supporting the idea that using the Internet may have a more negative impact on news viewing than news reading. First, Internet users most often go online for the kind of information featured by television news, especially by cable. Updates on stock quotes and sports scores (38%), weather, movies and other local information (39%), and news headlines (29%) are among the most often used features of Internet news sites.
Second, new online users increasingly come from lower and middle socio-economic groups which are heavier than average television watchers. New users are also disproportionately drawn from younger generations, who have primarily relied on TV rather than newspapers for their news.
The survey indicates, however, that both print and broadcast news may be able to cross-fertilize their audience with Internet news users. Fully 41% of those who go online say they turn to the Internet to get more information on stories first seen in the traditional media. Relatively few (21%) say they read stories online instead of getting them in newspapers or on TV.
The websites of national broadcast news organizations are more popular than newspaper sites. In fact, the current survey finds proportionately fewer online visitors to newspaper-sponsored sites than in 1996. Reports of using the MSNBC website increased the most over this period.
Generally, online audiences say they turn to news websites for three reasons: to get information that is unavailable elsewhere, for convenience and for the ability to search for news on a particular topic. Audio and video supplements are secondary, as is the ability to express opinions about news topics. This is true for both heavy and light news users.
The Internet news audience finds the websites of various news organizations no more or less accurate than the information found in those organizations’ traditional news outlets. However, more broadly, 44% of online users think that an accurate picture of what is going on in the world is more often found on the Internet than in daily newspapers or on network news broadcasts.
Campaign ’98 and the Internet
Traffic in Web-based election news was higher in 1998 than in 1996 (11 million people vs. 7 million) because the number of people with online access increased, not because politics and elections have become hot topics on the Internet. As a percentage of users, there was less use of the Internet for political purposes in the 1998 midterm elections. Just 15% reported going online for information about the elections, down from 22% in 1996.
This may be in part because midterm elections engender less interest than presidential contests. But the survey also suggests that new Internet users, who have lower socio-economic profiles and less political interest than longtime users, were not as inclined to use the Internet for election information.
Most people who did use the World Wide Web for political purposes rated their visits to various news and election sites as somewhat useful, with media sites getting slightly higher ratings than government or campaign sites. Three-in-ten people who went to a political website were seeking information about a candidate’s record, making that the top motivation for election news seekers. Fully 34% say their vote on Election Day was influenced by information they found on the Internet.
Slightly more Republicans than Democrats or Independents used the Internet for election information. Generally, Americans online are more politically active, more conservative and less supportive of Clinton than the rest of the population. However, a detailed look at their attitudes suggests that the Internet population tends to be somewhat more conservative on economic issues, but more liberal on social questions.
Few Internet users experience information overload — and most (63%) say they spend neither too much nor too little time online.
Nearly one-fifth of Internet users get customized news reports and an equal number receive emailed news. Slightly more regularly get news stories online instead of from newspapers and TV.
Trying to find something on the Internet is the top source of frustration for users, followed by the speed of Internet connections and the speed of searches. And these complaints aren’t limited to beginners — experienced users express more frustration than new users in each of these areas.
Americans are not overly concerned about computers crashing in the Year 2000. Only 13% worry a lot that computer systems will fail next year.
The remainder of the report is divided into five sections. Section I outlines basic patterns of Internet use. Section II deals with online news consumption. Section III looks at how Americans used the Internet for the 1998 elections. Section IV explores the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of Internet users. And Section V looks at Americans’ attitudes toward the Internet and technology. These sections are followed by several descriptive tables, a detailed methodology, a technical appendix and the complete questionnaire.