Mark Twain once said don’t knock the weather, half of the people couldn’t start a conversation without it. That seems to be true for Internet users, whose number one news attraction on the Net is the weather, according to a recent study.
The research, done by the Pew Research Center, shows how the “mainstreaming” of the Internet in the US is changing the face of online news. Forty-one percent of US adults are now online, and their most popular online news attraction is the weather (see table), Pew found.
Just two years ago, Pew reports, technology stories were the top news draw, but only 23 percent of US adults were online then. As less educated, lower-income people get wired, the popularity of more general interest subjects is growing. Weather and entertainment news is growing much more rapidly than more-focused attraction such as politics or international news.
According to Pew, the number of Americans that go online to find weather and entertainment news has grown substantially in the past two years. By comparison, while more voters used the Internet for election news and information for the 1998 elections, the percentage of Net users that sought out election information on the Internet has diminished.
The online news habits of American Internet users also vary from month to month, Pew found. In April of 1998, 55 percent of those polled went online to get news at least once a week. In November, that number was 37 percent, but by December it had risen to 64 percent. Pew reports that these fluctuations may be indicative of the news environment at the time, or they may indicate that news gathering has blended in with people’s other information-gathering activities.
Effects on Traditional Sources
Three-quarters of Internet users say they get more of their news from traditional sources like newspapers and television than the Internet. Only 11 percent say they are using traditional outlets less because of the Internet. The online population is overall more interested in news than the offline population in general, and is therefore more likely to read newspapers, Pew found.
Of the traditional news sources, television stands to lose more audience to the Internet than newspapers, according to the Pew Research. This is because the information offered over the Net most resembles the information people get from television (stock quotes, sports scores, weather, etc.). Another reason television stands to lose is that new Internet users come from less-educated, lower-income groups than their predecessors. These groups traditionally get more news from television than newspapers.
The good news for traditional sources of news is that Pew found that 41 percent of those who get news online say they do it to get more information about a story they first saw in the traditional media. Only 21 percent of those surveyed say they use the Internet as an alternative to reading papers or watching the TV news.
Audiences turn to online news sites for three reasons (see table), Pew found: to get information unavailable elsewhere; for the convenience it offers; and for the ability to search for topics. According to the Pew survey, the Web sites of broadcast television outlets are more popular than newspaper sites. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed that go online for news everyday do it because it more convenient for them. What mattered least to online newsreaders? The Pew respondents rated audio and video supplements, and the ability to express an opinion of the news, as secondary.
Forty-four percent of those surveyed think that a more accurate depiction of what is going on in the world is given in the Internet. The interesting note here is that online news sources are more likely to engage in commerce initiatives. For example, a site may publish a review of a CD and then offer a link to purchase it. Traditionally, this may lead to questioning the integrity of the source. Online users don’t seem to think that way. Earlier research by Jupiter Communications found that consumers do not question the integrity of sources that take part in commerce initiatives.
The Pew survey was based on telephone interviews with 3,184 US adults.
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