The current status and potential development of online news consumption: A structural approach by An Nguyen
In reviewing the current pattern of online news consumption across the globe and modelling major structural factors influencing this adoption, the author argues that the Internet, already a very important source of news, will become a major news medium in the years ahead.
The boom of online news organizations has been taking place at an unprecedented rate since 1993. Along with the emergence of many non-traditional news providers, the dawn of the twenty-first century continues to see a sharp upturn in the number of traditional news organizations migrating online. In the print journalism sector alone, according to the World Association of Newspapers (2001), the number of American newspapers with an online version rose from 1,149 in 1999 to 1,207 in 2000. In Europe, the same trend was recorded: In Germany, 232 newspapers were present online in 2000 (up from 179 in 1999); in Spain, the difference was between 29 and 85. In Australia, 172 newspapers had a Web edition in 2000, a considerable surge from 122 in the previous year.
In such a context, the online news audience has been growing in both size and substance. Based on available research data, this paper attempts first to draw a general picture of online news consumption in the world’s most wired populations during the first years of the century. Second, current patterns of online news consumption will be explored to predict the future of online news. In general, the Internet has reached or is reaching the status of a mainstream news medium. However, as the Internet is still in its infancy, factors influencing the current use and adoption of online news (including age, education, income, Internet experience, location of use, news habits and bandwidth) suggest a bright future of the Web as a major source of news in a near future.
The Web as a mainstream news medium
Internet adoption is continuing to grow very fast. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, at the end of 2002 the global Internet audience reached 655 million — an increase of 155 million from 2001 (The Age, 2002). In this increasingly crowded online community, along with e-mail and non-news information, news has been among the biggest drivers of this growth.
North America: A new news medium going mainstream
North America is probably the most conspicuous example of the phenomenal growth of online news consumption. In Canada, the latest General Social Survey  found that of the 13 million Internet users (or 53 percent of all Canadians of at least 15 years of age), 55 percent searched news online, making this the third most popular activity in the Canadian Web sphere, just after e-mail (84 percent) and searching for goods/services (75 percent) (Dryburgh, 2001). Another study by eMarketer shows the same trend. In 2001 online news was viewed in more than a quarter (26.2 percent) of Canadian households after e-mail (46.1 percent), general browsing (44.3 percent) and medical/health information (30.1 percent), and above 12 other categories of online activities (Cohen, 2003).
In the United States, prolific research into online news provides more exhaustive evidence. Although a diversity of commercial and academic studies have resulted in some points of debate, there is a general agreement that the Web as a news medium has gone mainstream. In September 2001, the U.S. Census Bureau (2002) surveyed 57,000 households with more than 137,000 individuals to find that news, including weather and sports, was the third most dominant of the 15 listed activities, being used by 62 percent of Internet users (approximately equivalent to one-third of the population), just after e-mail (84 percent) and searching for products or services (67 percent). A year later, a Jupiter Research study of 4,341 Americans in September 2002 found news to be the sixth most popular activity on the Web, being consumed by 53 percent of the online audience (Greenspan, 2002). To cite an academic study, the University of California at Los Angeles’ (UCLA) "Surveying the Digital Future" series demonstrated that "reading news" has consistently been in the third position of the most popular online activities with 55.6 percent, 47.6 percent and 51.9 percent of online users doing this in 2000, 2001 and 2002 respectively (UCLA Center for Communication Policy, 2003).
The status of the Internet as a mainstream news medium in American life is incisively asserted in the Pew Research Center’s (PRC) influential biannual surveys on media usage, which have been conducted since 1994. The most recent survey within the series, among 3,000 American adults from 26 April to 12 May 2002, shows that despite a general decline in American news usage between 2000 and 2002, online news consumption was still up; 35 percent of the population (33 percent in 2000) logged on the Web for news at least once a week in 2002 (Pew Research Center, 2002a). At the time of the survey, 15.5 percent of the American population received online news every day and a further 10 percent examined online news three to five times a week compared to 41 percent of the population reading a newspaper "yesterday" and only 13 percent being readers of weekly news magazines. The picture is clear: The Internet as a news source has at least substantially defeated mainstream weekly magazines in the race for readers.
The mainstream status of Web-based news can also be explored through the extent to which the Internet is relied on as a news source in times of national and international crises and atrocities. On September 11, 2001, for example, major news sites in the U.S. received millions of visitors immediately after the WTC and Pentagon were attacked: CNN.com alone received 162 million page views nearly a dozen times higher than on a typical day of the site. The demand for online news in the subsequent days and weeks (with the anthrax attacks and the war on Afghanistan) remained very high. Although overall Internet use on a typical day declined by around 10 percent in the first days after September 11, online news consumption experienced a considerable increase during the same period . A study found that the proportion of Americans using the Internet as the primary source of news and information jumped from only three percent on 12 September to eight percent in the two weeks starting from 27 September (Harris Interactive, 2001). Although news sites were in general not well-prepared to cope with such an unprecedented huge demand (and largely failed when people turned back to traditional news sources), the fact that millions immediately logged on for updated coverage of the disaster indicates that the Web was by then already a medium for immediate news consumption. An even more striking picture was found recently: 26 percent of online Americans identified the Internet as their primary source of information about a possible war in Iraq before it broke; and when it was happening, 37 percent got online news on a typical day (compared to the previously-found average of 24-26 percent) while 17 percent said most of their news about the war was received on the Web (Rainie et al., 2003).
Western Europe: A less vigorous but still growing development
As early as May 2002 Europe had the highest number of Internet users in the world (Light, 2002). However, in the context of the slower embrace of the Internet by European news organizations (Specker, 1999), it is understandable that online news consumption has been growing at a slower rate than in America. A special Eurobarometer report on Europeans’ cultural participation states that in the first year of the new century, nearly one-third of Europeans had read articles on national newspaper Web sites "in the past three months", making it the seventh most dominant of the 27 Internet applications listed in the survey (European Commission, 2000a). In late 2001, respondents to an eMarketer survey throughout 12 core European countries placed news second from the top (after e-mail) on the list of online activities. Accordingly, more than 70 percent of Internet users said they logged on to keep abreast of important developments related to business and world affairs (Online Publishing News, 2001).
Studies in individual countries with the highest Internet penetration reinforce these trends. In Sweden, for example, a survey within the World Internet Project found that in 2000 news reception was above 21 typical Internet activities on a 25-item list and was among those activities spent the most time on during a typical week (Findahl, 2001). By early 2003, when Sweden topped the U.S. to become the Web-savviest nation in the world (CNN.com, 2003), it had seen almost a third of its population reading online newspapers (Reitsma, 2003). In the U.K., a study for Freeserve unveiled that the Internet was the third most popular source of news, views and entertainment after TV and radio but before newspapers and magazines (Times of India, 2002). Traffic data released by Nielsen/NetRatings showed a similar trend: From May to October 2002, all the major news sites in the U.K. experienced some increase of unique users, led by news.bbc.co.uk with three million unique visitors in June (Nielsen/NetRatings, 2002a).
The Nielsen/NetRatings is indicative of the still-strong growth of online news adoption in the European Union (EU). No longitudinal studies with an exclusive focus on Europeans’ news habits were found for this review. However, some supportive evidence can be extracted from the European Commission’s Standard Eurobarometer Reports, an established 19-year-old series of yearly surveys which has both extensively and intensively explored EU citizens’ sources of news and information. In recent years, these studies have found the Internet an increasingly important source of information. In March/April 1999, the Web was used for this purpose by only six percent of the EU population (European Commission, 1999) compared to 10 percent a year later (European Commission, 2000b) and 14 percent in 2002 and 2003, when also 14 percent reportedly preferred the Internet as a method to receive news (European Commission, 2002; European Commission, 2003).
Two important facts must be noted to understand the implications of the Eurobarometer studies. First, although standing behind other traditional sources (television, newspapers/magazines, radio, and informal discussions with friends and relatives), the Internet has long defeated the combined category of books, brochures and information leaflets, to which it remained subordinate as late as 1999. Second, even in comparison with traditional news media, the Internet is the only medium with increasing importance. The proportion using television for information about the EU, for example, was down from 69 percent in 1999 to 65 percent in 2002; and newspapers declined from 46 percent to 44 percent during the same period. All this indicates that the Web as a news medium is just taking off and will continue to grow in Europe in the near future.
Asia-Pacific on the same move
The Asia-Pacific area is now the most active region in terms of Internet adoption. Online news consumption in the developed segments of this region has been moving in the same direction as seen in Europe and North America.
In Australia, a policy-guiding study for the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) in August 2000, found news the fifth most frequently used online categories on a 16-item list, being accessed by nearly half of the online population at home (with about 16 percent doing this "all the time" or "quite often") (ABA, 2001). This is fairly consistent with an earlier Roy Morgan study, which found that by 2000, 17 percent of Internet users were regular readers of newspapers’ online versions (Newspaper Advertising Bureau of Australia, 2000). More recently, a Bond University survey, also conducted for the ABA, shows a similar picture: 23 percent of the population used the Internet for news and current affairs (Brand et al., 2002).
The popularity of the Internet as a news medium in Australia could be further elaborated in terms of traffic to news sites. In July 2002, for example, Jupiter Media Metrix observed that the number of unique visitors to news.com.au had exceeded one million per month (cited in Kidman, 2002). As in the U.S., during times of crises, the Web becomes much more important for concerned Australians. On September 11, 2001, traffic was 239 percent higher than that of an average August day at news.com.au, 47 percent at smh.com.au and 33 percent at theage.com.au according to Nielsen/NetRatings (cited in Bogle, 2001).
The situation in Asian societies with dramatic penetration of the Internet is much the same. In Japan, the latest report on Internet usage trends by the World Internet Project Japan, released in July 2002, shows that news was ranked third among 33 types of Web sites being accessed "in the past month". While all of the other four of the top five Web site types (search sites, transportation/travel course/maps, weather forecasts and PC-related sites) more or less plunged down from 2000 to 2001, access to online news surged from 37.8 percent in 2000 to 40.6 percent in 2001 (Mikaki et al., 2002). Developed Chinese populations are no different in this regard:
- In Hong Kong, Zhou and He (2002a) found that users spent the fourth largest amount of online time on reading news in 2000: 90 minutes per week compared to 200 minutes on searching for work- or study-related information; 175 minutes on e-mail; and 104 minutes on searching for personal interest information.
- In Taiwan, an island-wide survey of 2,015 people in December 2000 placed news reception on the third position on the list of the most time-devoted online activities: 17.42 minutes per day just after searching recreational information (26.52 minutes/day) and searching professional or learning information (21.34 minutes/day) (Liu et al., 2002).
- In Macao, according to a survey conducted in early 2001 by Cheong (2002), news was on top of the list of Web-based information types, being sought by 62 percent of Internet users above entertainment information (51.9 percent), education (30.7 percent), sports (17.2 percent), travel (8.6 percent), shopping (7.1 percent), health (5.1 percent), food and beverage (3.7 percent), and information for adults (2.1 percent).
- In mainland China, the Web as a new news medium has also been embraced in places where the Internet has a strong presence. A survey among 2,664 respondents in Beijing and Guangzhou, for example, found in late 2000 that the second largest amount of online time spent by Internet adopters (accounting for 27 percent of the whole sample) was on news reception just after searching work- or study-related information (Zhou and He, 2002b).
A forecast based on current influential factors
Whatever measures are used and wherever they are conducted, the mere statistics presented above show a clear trend of a strong growth of online news in communities deeply penetrated by the Internet. It is not exaggerating to predict that online news will sooner or later, along with the established news media, play a comparatively major role in informing the public and shaping its opinions and knowledge. A deeper look at the profile and online behaviours of online news users provides more hints of this potentiality. Figure 1 shows major structural factors with potential influence on the use of news on the Web, including demographics, bandwidth, Internet experience and use locations. All these factors have direct influence on the use of online news, indicated by the blue arrows. What's more, some of these direct factors have closely mutual relationships, indicated by the pink arrows, making them more decisive in acting as indirect influences on the potential for a wide adoption of online news in the future. Details and supportive evidence of these relationships are discussed below.
Figure 1: Major factors influencing online news consumption.
A generation growing up with the Internet to embrace online news
A few decades ago, when television began to penetrate daily life, it immediately saw rosy years ahead as its early adopters were dominantly young media-savvy people. This applies well to the current online audience. None of the relevant data available for this report contradicts the observed trend that young people are turning to the Web for news and, in some cases, abandoning traditional news media. What makes the Web even more powerful than television of the 1960s is its multipurpose nature. The Internet is not just for entertainment and the news but is already a crucial part of today’s daily work; and a more dramatic dependence on this medium is a matter of course in the future. According to a survey in the world’s most mature Internet population, by July 2002, one in five Americans had already felt that the Web was the "most essential" medium in their daily life compared to 39 percent indicating television, 26 percent picking radio and only 11 percent choosing newspapers (Rose and Rosin, 2002). More importantly, more than one-third of those aged 12-24 saw the Web as the most essential medium (while only 30 percent did so to television and 27 percent to radio); and nearly half of 12-to-34-years-olds took to the Web as "the most cool and exciting" medium. In contrast, only two percent described newspapers in the same fashion.
Meanwhite, it is important to note that a large proportion of the current online audience is still immature in terms of Internet experience. This is a crucial point about the potential development of online news as studies have asserted that more experienced Internet users are more likely to consume news online. In the aforementioned Swedish study, people with more extensive Internet experience spend more time on most online activities, including news reception: About 40 percent of experienced users (4.5 years or more) but only 20 percent of beginners (less than 1.5 years) read news on the Web (Findahl, 2001). In the U.S., as found in a 2,000-respondent survey by MORI Research in early 2002, while only 41 percent of the general Internet community had been online for at least four years, 62 percent of online newspaper readers were so (Coats, 2002).
The implication is that this young generation, growing up with more skills, enjoyment and dependence in relation to computers and the Internet, will more and more rely on the Web as their source of news. The Internet is the news medium of the future in this sense.
Broadband to make big differences
Another factor to promise a bright future for online news is the potential adoption of broadband. Currently, the majority of Internet users at home are connected through a telephone line. The percentage of permanent connection is very low around the developed world. By early 2003, for example, only 363,500 broadband connections were recorded in Australia (The Age, 2003) while only six million in Western Europe had home broadband access (Europemedia.net, 2003). Meanwhile narrowband access had been found to be an obstacle to online activities.
Characteristically, broadband means not only a permanent connection but also high speed of data transfer. It saves much surfing time and makes the Web truly accessible at any time as the need to dial up through a telephone modem has been eliminated. The high speed also facilitates downloading big files (such as video clips), making Web content much more enjoyable and compelling to users, who might quickly embrace the multimedia advantage of the Web as the result. What this holds for the future is a potentially huge impact on the use frequency and time budget for online activities in general and online news in particular. A PRC survey of the difference between broadband and dial-up users (Horrigan and Rainie, 2002) unveils this close relationship:
- high-speed users expanded their Web activities to a large extent, doing seven things online (compared to three by dial-up users) on a typical day; and,
- high-speed users are much more active in using the Internet not only as receivers but also as creators and manipulators of Web content (almost six in ten had created or shared files with others on the Web and 26 percent did this on an average day).
Other research consolidates these findings. The MORI research cited above discovers that broadband users spend much more time on the Web than dial-up users and indeed go online much more frequently from home (Coats, 2002). In the Swedish study, Internet users with permanent and high-speed connection (1) found less technical problems; (2) were more pleased with the availability of online goods and services; (3) felt the Web had more to offer them; (4) felt more involved in discussion about information technology; and, (5) did more things than dial-up users (Findahl, 2001). In Australia, broadband connection translates into nearly doubling the time spent online and around 2.5 times more page views according to ACNielsen (Nua.com News, 2002).
The link between news consumption and broadband connection has also been established. In 2001, Market Facts conducted a nation-wide study to discover that American broadband users were much more likely to take advantage of the multimedia nature of the Internet to optimise coverage of breaking news and live events. Accordingly, 23 percent of the broadband audience relied on the Web as a primary source of breaking news while only six percent of dial-up users did so (MSNBC, 2001). The MORI research reveals the link in the other way: Readers of online newspapers are more likely to have a home broadband connection than the general Internet user 37 percent compared to 25 percent. In terms of news consumption, these users are three to four times more likely to go online for local and national/world news than the average Internet user (Coats, 2002). The PRC’s broadband-difference survey results in an even more striking fact: On any given day 46 percent of broadband users received their news online while only 40 percent read newspapers (Horrigan and Rainie, 2002). During the first six days of the recent Gulf War, broadband users (and Internet veterans) got more online news than any other group. In particular, nearly half of broadband users got war news online (Rainie et al., 2003).
As people are more and more involved in the Internet for their daily life, there is a potentially huge demand for broadband connection. This is very likely when people get more experience with the Internet. The PRC’s broadband-difference study shows that experienced Internet users are more likely to have a home broadband connection: While only one percent of less-than-six-months users and four percent of those having been online for about a year had home broadband connection, 21 percent of users with two to three years of experience, 28 percent of those with four to five years of experience and 42 percent of those with at least six years online did so (Horrigan and Rainie, 2002).
Some other important, sometimes decisive, factors will add to the likelihood of wide broadband adoption and the possible subsequent increase in online news consumption. As research shows, current Internet users are lovers of a media-rich environment, who tend to use a wide range of media and are the most willing to pay to enrich their media experience. In terms of news habits, these people, typically more educated, are largely news junkies, who receive news from all or most available sources and spend more time than non-users on news and current affairs .
The primetime at-work audience
While the news industry has to wait a while for the widespread adoption of broadband at home to boost online news, there is already a firm and promising broadband audience: The at-work Internet users. In the U.S., according to traffic data released by Nielsen/NetRatings, 46 million of American office workers logged on the Web during daytime in August 2002 an increase of 17 percent in a year (Nielsen/NetRatings, 2002b). In Canada, as early as May 2000, 78 percent of those with at-work Internet access had already used it for personal reasons such as e-mail, news and information updates, shopping comparison and financial transactions (Angus Reid Group, 2000). In France, a quarter of employees spend more than one hour per working day for personal purposes according to a survey by Benchmark Group (Nua.com News, 2002). Two implications for the news industry can be suggested here:
On the one hand, as the office workplace is typically connected with high bandwidth and more and more people are getting used to it, this stimulates the demand for broadband connection at home. Some evidence has been found in the broadband-difference study: Most broadband users (81 percent) were already used to high-speed connection in their office and 43 percent were reported to be influenced by it in their decision to upgrade their home connection (Horrigan and Rainie, 2002). As argued above, the potential wide deployment of home broadband will be a crucial contributor to a profound increase in the demand for online news in the future.
On the other hand, it is in the workplace where the Internet as a news medium truly overwhelms its competitors. The Web’s strengths of 24-hour availability, immediacy and updates are most needed at work, where other media with comparative capacities for immediate updates like television (today’s most important source of news) and radio are generally not available. When some news breaks during the workday, it is the Web that will be the most accessible. This is probably why recent research has consistently found news seeking one of the common activities among employees when they use the Web on the job. Traffic data for the week ending 29 September 2002 measured by comScore reveal that 67 percent of at-work Internet users visited news and information sites (Fitzgerald, 2002). Coincidentally this is exactly the percentage of respondents admitting going to news sites at work in a survey by Websense (2002). The study also finds that 25 percent of at-work Internet users are addicted to the Web and news is the second most addictive category (to 23 percent of the respondents) closely behind shopping and far beyond pornography (18 percent), gambling (eight percent) and auctioning (six percent). The key implication of this "news-beating-sex" phenomenon is that in this time of international and national crises, the Web largely wins as a news resource.
Discussion and conclusion
Before reaching a conclusion, some problems of this account must be admitted. First, a great deal of evidence has been cited from American research. This is unfortunate as I have tried to avoid a US-centric view. But given that the Web is most mature in the U.S., this has some inferential values. Second, most of the cited studies do not have an explicit definition of what news is on the Web. The diffusing nature of the Internet has made it extremely difficult for researchers to define news, and it seems that most of them let their respondents define "news" personally. To be fair, this has been a standard practice in traditional surveys of "offline" news usage; the problem here is that a definition of "news" on the Web as understood by some respondents might include rumours, information from unauthorative sources, bloggers and the like. Should these sources be considered news? In some cases, even categories of online activities within these studies overlap. For example, in the Jupiter Research study, "news" and "online newspapers" were mysteriously treated as two different groups of online activities. This lack of a standard definition makes comparative analysis a big challenge.
Another problem is that this analysis does not address many other complicated aspects in media use, including the gratifications of online news, the cultural factors in adopting it as well as other potential issues such as health problems. For example, a three-year Japanese study of 25,000 workers has recently found that staring at computer screens for more than five hours a day is likely to be the cause of physical pain and mental problems (Tobler, 2002). If more evidence of these health problems is found, many might abandon much of their time in the cyberspace. Similarly, normatively potential influences (such as the trustworthiness of online news) and many relative advantages of online news (such as individual freedom to receive, select and publish news online) have been mostly omitted in this analysis. Future research of online news consumption needs to understand these factors.
For now, however, from a structural point of view, it should be reiterated that consuming online news has grown and will continue to do so. The Internet will definitely become a major news medium of the future. Will it compliment or alter traditional news media? The question is still open to debate and the research cited in this report has resulted in much contradictory evidence of a dramatic impact. Nonetheless, the "historical rule" is that no new medium eliminates older media. They survive well, and in many cases, cooperate effectively, with each other. The surge of online news and the current marriage between the Internet and traditional news media promise many interesting issues to explore in the future.
About the Author
An Nguyen is a prize-winning journalist from Vietnam and a winner of the 2001 Reuters Prize for Postgraduate Studies in Journalism at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is currently conducting his Ph.D. research on the public adoption of online news at the School of English, Media Studies and Art History in the same institution (under the Australian Government-funded International Postgraduate Research Scholarships scheme), while remaining a feature writer and media commentator in the Vietnamese popular press. His research interest, beside online journalism and new media theories, includes professionalism of journalism education and literary journalism in the U.S., China and Vietnam.
. This review is an updated version of the first part of a paper presented at the "International news: Challenges of the new century" Conference organized by the Australia-based Journalism Education Association and Hong Kong Baptist University (Hong Kong, 2-6 December 2002).
3. For in-depth analysis of this, see research by Stempel et al. (2000), the PRC’s biannual surveys since 1998 and especially the series of reports within the World Internet Project, available at http://www.worldinternetproject.net/.
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Paper received 10 May 2003; revised 9 July 2003; accepted 31 July 2003.
Copyright ©2003, First Monday
Copyright ©2003, An Nguyen
The current status and potential development of online news consumption: A structural approach by An Nguyen
First Monday, volume 8, number 9 (September 2003),
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
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