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New Technologies Lead to New Habits; The Issue is Who Has the New Habits

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September 13, 2010

New Technologies Lead to New Habits; The Issue is Who Has the New Habits

By Gary Kim, Contributing Editor

Internet Protocol-based media and networks are having a complex effect on existing media and consumer behavior. One might simply assume that digital media consumption just cannibalizes offline media consumption, but the larger pattern seems at the moment to be that overall media consumption increases as users add new channels to existing channels.

"Americans are spending more time with the news than over much of the past decade," say researchers at The Pew (News - Alert) Research Center for the People & the Press.

 Digital platforms are playing a larger role in news consumption, and they seem to be more than making up for modest declines in the audience for traditional platforms, Pew researchers say.

As a result, the average time Americans spend with the news on a given day is as high as it was in the mid-1990s, when audiences for traditional news sources were much larger.

Those trends might have some relevance for television, movies, music, magazines and other forms of media as well, at least in the near term. Over the longer term, the pattern likely will change, though. Given a sufficiently long time horizon, major shifts in media tend to be much more pronounced. 

In other words, trends we see early in a media displacement cycle are quite different from the long term trend. Initially, "incremental increases" in consumption are observable. Long term, newer forms of media tend to displace most usage of the older forms. The shift from stage to radio to television provide examples. 

Around 34 percent of respondents now say they went online for news "yesterday," about the same amount as they used radio and  slightly higher than daily newspapers. And when cell phones, email, social networks and podcasts are added in, 44 percent of Americans say they got news through one or more internet or mobile digital source "yesterday."

At the same time, the proportion of Americans who get news from traditional media platforms such as television, radio and print, has been stable or edging downward in the last few years. There has been no overall decline in the percentage saying they watched news on television, and even with the continued erosion of print newspaper and radio audiences, three-quarters of Americans got news yesterday from one or more of these three traditional platforms.

At least for the moment, instead of replacing traditional news platforms, Americans are increasingly integrating new technologies into their news consumption habits. More than 36 percent of Americans say they got news from both digital and traditional sources yesterday, just shy of the number who relied solely on traditional sources (39 percent). Only nine percent of Americans got news through the internet and mobile technology without also using traditional sources.

The net impact of digital platforms supplementing traditional sources is that Americans are spending more time with the news than was the case a decade ago. 

As was the case in 2000, people now say they spend 57 minutes on average getting the news from TV, radio or newspapers on a given day. But today, they also spend an additional 13 minutes getting news online, increasing the total time spent with the news to 70 minutes. This is one of the highest totals on this measure since the mid-1990s and it does not take into account time spent getting news on cell phones or other digital devices .

The groups that are driving the increase in time spent with the news, particularly highly educated people, are most likely to use digital and traditional platforms. Fully 69 percent of those with some post-graduate experience got news through a digital source yesterday; this also is the group that showed the largest rise in time spent with the news from 2006-2008 to 2010 (from 81 minutes yesterday to 96 minutes). There also has been a modest increase in time spent with the news among those 30 to 64, but not among older and younger age groups.

Digital platforms are supplementing the news diets of news consumers, but there is little indication they are expanding the proportion of Americans who get news on a given day. 

That particular finding might be relevant for "newspaper" content owners who believe the emergence of ebook readers and tablet devices with newsreader apps will change the consumption profile for "newspaper" content.

The contrarian view might be that demand for a product fewer people want is not likely to be changed by presenting that content in a new medium. In other words, users who do not find "newspaper" content to be valuable are not likely to find that same content more valuable when it is delivered in an online or mobile context. 

Eighty-three percent of Americans get news in one form or another as part of their daily life. But even when cell phones, podcasts, social networks, email, Twitter and RSS feeds are accounted for, 17 percent of Americans say they got no news yesterday, little changed from previous years.

Moreover, while young people are most likely to integrate new technologies into their daily lives, they are not using these sources to get news at higher rates than do older Americans.  Rather, those in their 30s are the only age group in which a majority (57%) reports getting news on one or more digital platforms yesterday.

Nearly 49 percent of people in their 40s, and 44 percent of those between 50 and 64, got news through one or more digital modes yesterday, rates that are comparable to those 18 to 29 (48 percent). Digital news consumption is low only among those ages 65 and older, just 23 percent of whom used one or more digital modes for news yesterday.

Only 26 percent of Americans say they read a newspaper in print yesterday, down from 30 percent two years ago and 38 percent in 2006. 

Online newspaper readership continues to grow and is offsetting some of the overall decline in readership. This year, 17 percent of Americans say they read something on a newspaper’s website yesterday, up from 13 percent in 2008 and nine percent in 2006.

What remains unclear is whether the additional online readership is coming from users already engaged in offline consumption, or whether online delivery is changing "non-users" into "users."

Even when all online newspaper readership is included, 37 percent of Americans report getting news from newspapers yesterday, virtually unchanged from 39 percent two years ago, but down from 43 percent in 2006.

In general, daily newspaper readers tend to be older on average than the general public, but the regular readership of some of the major national newspapers, including USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, defy this trend, Pew researchers say. 

More than half of regular USA Today and Wall Street Journal (55 percent each) readers are younger than 50, a profile that largely matches the nation as a whole (roughly 55 percent of all adults are between 18 and 49). 

Fully two-thirds (67 percent) of regular New York Times readers are younger than 50, with a third (34 percent) younger than 30, making its audience substantially younger than the national average (55 percent younger than 50, 23 percent younger than 30).

On the other hand, the young profile of the regular New York Times readership might suggest that at least some offline media can use digital distribution to create "users" out of  "non-users." So far the data appear to be inconclusive on that score. 

Gary Kim (News - Alert) is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Gary’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

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