Journalism :ON LINE
By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
The Web in 2008 became a regular and even primary news destination for more and more Americans.
Several surveys found that the number of Americans who used the Web regularly for news jumped. And at least for some news the Internet has now overtaken most other media as a favored news delivery platform.
One poll, in December 2008, found the number of Americans who said they got “most of their national and international news” online increased 67% in the last four years.1 The presidential election was almost certainly a key factor in the growth. More than a third of Americans said they got most of their campaign news from the Internet in 2008 — triple the percentage in previous presidential election year.2
The growth in online news consumption cut across age groups, but the growth was fueled in particular by young people. Young voters and activists now rank the Internet as a news source of importance parallel to television.3
And the shift was likely not just a matter of changing audience tastes. News organizations and the political community both were also more aggressive about delivering news and information online, and giving consumers more ways to gather, organize and share it across multiple devices. From personalized news pages sent to a person’s e-mail, delivery of content on “smart” mobile phones, news-ranking sites that list the most-recommended news stories and more sharing of content among news producers, what was available from the traditional news media digitally was richer, even if much of this was the same information simply made more readily available.
Add to that social networking sites like Facebook. And the video site YouTube also became a major delivery system for people to get news posted and recommended by friends and associates, and often from political campaigns. The Obama camp reported more than a billion minutes of campaign-produced material was downloaded from YouTube. And Youtube reported that the Obama campaign’s 1800 web videos were viewed 100 million times in total.4
Internet News Use
By any number of yardsticks, the traffic to news websites jumped in 2008.
According to a PEJ analysis of comScore data, the average number of unique visitors to the top 50 news sites each month grew 27% in 2008 over the year before.5 The number of monthly unique visitors to all 700 news and information sites measured by comScore grew 7%.
Comparing one media platform to another can be complicated, given the different ways different media are measured. Often the clearest reference is found in survey data.
According to Pew Research Center data, as of August 2008 the percentage of Americans who went online regularly for news (at least three times a week) was up 19% from two years earlier to nearly four in ten Americans (37%). No other medium was growing as quickly. Most saw audiences flat or declining.
The new numbers put the Web ahead of several other platforms for the first time. In the same August survey, 29% of Americans said they “regularly” watched network nightly news, 22% watched network morning shows and 13% Sunday morning shows.
The percentage of Americans who relied on the Internet regularly, according to this data, was now roughly similar to that who regularly watched cable television for news (39%).
More people still read a newspaper “yesterday” (34%) or listened to news radio (35%) than had viewed news online “yesterday” (29%). But the gap was narrowing.6
The biggest jump came in the number of people relying on the Web for national and international news in particular. In December, 40% of Americans said they got most of their national and international news online, up 67% from 2004, the last presidential election year, when the number was 24%. That put the web ahead of newspapers (35%). Only television, cable, local and network combined, ranked higher (70%).7
Other surveys reinforced the notion of a jump in online news consumption. In November 2008, for instance, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found 36% of Internet users said they now used the Web for news on a “typical day,” a 16% jump from two years earlier (December 2006) when the number was 31%.
The numbers, it is important to note, refer to the platform by which people acquired their news, not the source gathering it. Virtually all of the most popular news websites are those associated with traditional news organizations, whose legacy platforms are paying for the news gathering, or are aggregators, which collect content from traditional newsrooms and wire services rather than produce their own. But given the financial implications of the Web on the news business, the numbers are no less significant.
This growth in online news consumption was not due to more people using the Internet generally. The percent of people who go online for any reason has held fairly steady at 70% to 75% of the U.S. population since 2006.
But those who go online do it more often and for longer periods of time than in the past, and they increasingly seek news. Since 2004, for instance, the percentage of online Americans saying they went online “yesterday” increased from 58% to 72%. And the number logging on multiple times a day from home jumped from 27% to 34%.8 Another study found that over the last three years, the amount of time the average user spent online increased from 14 hours a week in 2006 to over 17 hours as of January 2009.9
Consider that that in January 2009, the Digital Future Report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School found that 79% of adult users said the Internet was now their “most important” source of information (not just for news), higher than television (68%) or newspapers (60%). Getting news online, in other words, has become more of a reflex and a larger part of people’s daily lives.10
For all this, one other factor has remained constant in Internet news trends: the people who go online for their news tend to be more educated. That has not changed over the last decade even as the number of online news users has grown.
Ten years ago a college graduate was more than three times as likely as someone with a high school education or less to regularly go online for news. That gap remains just as large today. Fully 61% of college graduates go online for news at least three days a week, compared with just 19% of those with no more than a high school education.11
Beyond demographics, the accelerating move by audiences generally to the Web just deepens the paradox facing the news business.
As their audience migrates online, and the old media continue to build their offerings there to service them, the media are properly developing their market share in the new media environment. The more success legacy news operations have online, however, the more damaging it is to their current revenue base, since the Internet increasingly cannot pay for itself from any of the current economic models (see Online Economics).
Internet Audiences and the Election
Almost certainly a major reason for the surge in online news consumption in 2008 was interest in the election. While television remained the dominant delivery source, the percent of Americans who said they got most of their campaign news from the Internet tripled between October 2004 and October 2008. Fully a third (33%) reported getting most of their election news online, up from the 10% who did so four years earlier.12
By the last week of the election, 59% of voters said they had sought out or encountered at least some political information online.13
Young people were a major factor in that growth. Nearly three times as many people ages 18 to 29 cited the Internet (49%) as their main campaign news platform as mentioned newspapers (17%).14
Among those over age 50, nearly the opposite was true: 22% relied on the Internet for election news while 39% look to newspapers. Even with that, compared with 2004, use of the Internet for election news has increased across all age groups. Among the youngest cohort (age 18-29), television has lost significant ground to the Internet.15
Most Popular News Sites
Which news sites were enjoying this boost in traffic? The evidence suggests growth across a range.
To some extent, the biggest Web sites got even bigger. The top four news sites alone, for example, increased their audience by 22% in 2008, according to data from comScore, or a combined 23.6 million visitors a month. That rate of increase is more than twice as fast as in 2007 and more than five times the rate in 2006. At Yahoo News, the most-visited news site according to comScore, the number of visitors rose by 13% for the year. The number rose 24% at No. 2 MSNBC.com, 34% at No. 3 CNN.Com, and 20% at No. 4 AOL News.
(Tracking the exact order of which of these sites is first, second or third is complicated by the fact that the different measuring agencies use different methodologies, but all show substantial growth).
The traffic data also suggest that a host of niche sites that barely registered or did not exist during the previous presidential election also benefited. Huffingtonpost.com, a news aggregator, producer and blogging website, for example, catapulted into the 20 most-visited sites in September 2008, according to data from comScore, with 4.5 million users during the month, an increase of 474% compared with September 2007.16
Politico.com, which started in 2007 (see New Ventures Section) with a focus on national politics, increased fivefold to 2.4 million visitors between September 2007 and 2008. RealClearPolitics.com, which aggregates political news and polling, grew 489% during that period.17
Audience Growth: Top News Sites vs. Select Political Sites
September 2007 vs. September 2008
Source: comScore, Inc.
But even with those gains, traffic to those sites remained a fraction of what the leading news sites drew. As a group, HuffingtonPost.com, RealClearPolitics.com and Politico.com drew an average of 3.9 million more visitors per month in 2008 than in 2007. To put that into perspective, Yahoo News.com gained 4.5 million by itself. The evidence clearly suggests that while a variety of new sites grew, in general, the big got even bigger, extending their share of Internet traffic.
After the election, some of these niche sites were more successful than others at retaining those audiences. In December, the Huffington Post still drew 81% of the viewers it did in September and October, when interest in the campaign was highest. Salon.com, the left-leaning online magazine, retained 77%. Two newer sites, however, did not do as well. Politico’s website kept just about half its audience. And the Real Clear Politics website, which had grown in advance of the election, kept only 21%.18
Top News Sites (Nielsen)
Average monthly unique visitors, 2007 vs. 2008
Source: Nielsen Online
Top News Sites (comScore)
Average monthly unique visitors, 2007 vs. 2008
Source: comScore, Inc.
Source: Hitwise, Inc.