Understanding the participatory news consumer


Between December 28, 2009 and January 19, 2010, this survey was given by land line and cell phone to 2,259 adults, age 18 and older in English.

Site drivers

65% of respondents say they do not have a single favorite website for news.

Consumers foraging for news are looking for something that’s different; updates, elaborations.

Nine in ten American adults (92%) get news from multiple platforms on a typical day, with half of those using four to six platforms daily. Fully 59% get news from a combination of online and offline sources on a typical day. Just over a third (38%) rely solely on offline sources, and 2% rely exclusively on the internet for their daily news.

What does multiple platforms mean…

For consumers?

For news organizations?

For any organization?

The most popular online news subjects are the weather (followed by 81% of internet news users), national events (73%), health and medicine (66%), business and the economy (64%), international events (62%), and science and technology (60%).

Asked what subjects they would like to receive more coverage, 44% said scientific news and discoveries, 41% said religion and spirituality, 39% said health and medicine, 39% said their state government, and 38% said their neighborhood or local community.

Local news is last, meaning…?

‘Socializing’ news distribution

  • 75% of online news consumers say they get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites and 52% say they share links to news with others via those means.
  • 51% of social networking site (e.g. Facebook) users who are also online news consumers say that on a typical day they get news items from people they follow. Another 23% of this cohort follow news organizations or individual journalists on social networking sites.

Some 37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commentary about it, or dissemination of news via social media. They have done at least one of the following: commenting on a news story (25%); posting a link on a social networking site (17%); tagging content (11%), creating their own original news material or opinion piece (9%), or Tweeting about news (3%).

Suggesting that news must be in portable, shareable content pieces.

New gatekeepers

Some 28% of internet users have customized their home page to include news from their favorite source or topics and 40% of internet users say an important feature of a news website to them is the ability to customize the news they get from the site. Moreover, 36% of internet users say an important part of a news website to them is the ability to manipulate content themselves such as graphics, maps, and quizzes.

Suggesting design and interactive functionality can be as important as nature of content.

An expectation of bias

When it comes to the quality of coverage itself, respondents give correspondingly mixed signals. Just under two-thirds (63%) agree with statement that “major news organizations do a good job covering all of the important news stories and subjects that matter to me.” Yet 72% also back the idea that “most news sources today are biased in their coverage.” Some of the explanation for this dichotomy seems to be rooted in the views of partisans. Liberals and Democrats are more likely to say the big news organizations do a good job on subjects that matter to them, while conservatives and Republicans are the ones most likely to see coverage as biased.

What does this suggest about content design and presentation?

If you see coverage as biased, how does that influence your online news behavior?

Print’s edge

Print version of local newspaper: Those who are particularly likely to read news in a printed version of their local paper on a typical day include: whites, those over age 50, and people who do not own cell phones. Paradoxically, non-internet users and those who have premium internet services are more likely than others to read local newspapers. Those who use text messaging and those who use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are less likely to read the print version of local newspapers on a typical day than those who do not use those tech applications.

Print version of a national newspaper like the New York Times or USA Today: The readers of the printed version of national newspapers are decidedly upscale. College graduates, those who live in households earning $75,000 or more, and internet users (especially those with premium plans) are more likely than others to read national newspapers on a typical day. Democrats are also disproportionately likely to get their news routinely from printed national newspapers.

Suggesting that local media companies that want to survive need to reach customers in alternate ways.

ABC counting trends: Subscribers vs. customers.

Content categories

There are five subjects about which noteworthy pluralities of Americans say they would like more coverage. In some of these instances it is interesting to note that younger adults lead the pack in wanting more coverage:

  • Science news and discoveries: 44% of Americans say there is not enough coverage of science-related news. Those who use the most news platforms (between four and six on a typical day) are among the most interested in getting more science news: 48% of them say so.
  • Religion and spirituality: 41% of Americans say there is not enough coverage of religious and spiritual issues. Women (44%) are more likely than men (37%) to seek more coverage of this area; young adults ages 18-29 (49%) are more likely than those over age 50 (35%) to say this; and bloggers (50%) are more likely than non-bloggers (40%) to say this. Race/ethnicity is also a factor, with African-Americans (57%) significantly more likely than both whites (38%) and Hispanics (43%) to say they would like to see more coverage of religion and spirituality.

What coverage in this area do you think of? Seek out? Religions vs. spirituality?

  • Health and medicine: 39% of Americans say there is not enough coverage of health and medical news. African-Americans (50%) are more likely than whites (36%) to say there is not enough coverage; non-internet users (43%) are more likely than internet users (37%) to say this.
  • Your state government: 39% of Americans say there is not enough coverage of news about their state government. There are no significant demographic variations where this topic is concerned.
  • Your neighborhood or local community: 38% of Americans say there is not enough coverage of their neighborhood and local affairs. Young adults (41%) are more likely than senior citizens (31%) to believe this; those who get news on the internet (44%) are more likely than others (36%) to express this view.

What people say they want vs. what they really want: The local newspaper experience suggests crime and new businesses generate the most interest.

Serendipity factor

Who are the 34% of respondents who most appreciate serendipitous encounters with news items? They are disproportionately composed of those who are avid news followers, those who use several news media platforms on a typical day (especially the internet), and those with college degrees and higher levels of household income.

How about the 28% who most identify with only following specific news topics? This group is skewed towards those who prefer news sources that share their point of view, men, minorities, and those under age 30. Interestingly, there are no significant differences in the answers to this question that align by ideological viewpoint or party identification.

In general, Democrats and those who describe themselves as liberal are most likely to get news on a typical day from:

  • A news organization or individual journalist they follow on a social networking site such as Facebook
  • The Twitter posts of individuals who are not journalists, or organizations other than the major news organizations
  • The websites of international news organizations
  • The websites of radio news organizations such as NPR
  • News podcasts from organizations such as NPR or the New York Times

In contrast, Republicans and those who describe themselves as conservative are more likely to make a daily visit to the website of a major TV news organization, and are also more likely than other online news users to utilize just 1-2 internet news sources on a typical day.

Implications for news organizations?

Implications for political strategists?

Education levels and income drive multi-platform use.

Understanding the participatory news consumer

News on the go

To understand the impact of wireless mobility on news consumption, the current survey asked owners of cell phones, BlackBerries and other handheld devices about different ways they might get news on the go. Overall, 26% of American adults say they get some form of news via cell phone – that amounts to 33% of adult cell phone owners and 88% of adults who have mobile internet. To arrive at that figure we asked the 80% of American adults who own cell phones if they access the internet or email by phone; some 37% say they do. Among this subgroup of internet-using mobile phone users, we found that the vast majority get some kind of news online:

  • 72% check weather reports on their cell
  • 68% get news and current events information on their cell
  • 49% have downloaded an application that allows them to access news, weather, sports, or other information on their cell
  • 44% check sports scores and related information on their cell
  • 35% check traffic information on their cell
  • 32% get financial information or updates
  • 31% get news alerts sent by text or email to their phones
  • 88% say yes to at least one of the above

Given the news topics of interest to 33 percent of adult cell phone users, what businesses might now presume to be in the news business?

Examine the demographic differences among voracious users: Income, gender, age, etc.

If you were a web business, which group would you target?

Participatory news

The act of sharing of news and conversation about news is an integral part of email exchanges and social media activity. Of the 71% of the adult population who get news online, 75% of them say they get news forwarded to them through email or posts on social networking sites. That amounts to 71% of all internet users. When news is passed along to them, 38% of this cohort read the material all or most of the time; 37% read it some of the time, and 23% say they hardly have time to read it.

Of these internet users who get news online, 50% say they pass along email links to news stories or videos to others. (That represents 48% of all internet users.) Those who follow the news avidly, who are on-the-go consumers, who use social networking sites or Twitter or have a blog are much more likely than others to send along links to news in their emails than other internet users are.

What types of content are commonly passed around?

The importance of news to social experiences online also shows up in one other way in our survey. A significant portion of online news consumers judge news organization websites by the degree to which they facilitate the social sharing of news. Some 44% of these online news consumers say that one of the factors they use in choosing where to get news online is whether it is easy to share the site’s content with others through emails or postings on social networking sites. A quarter of these online news consumers (25%) say an important factor for them is being able to follow the news organization through social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. As the table below shows, young online news users have substantially stronger attachments to the social features of websites than older users.

So content type and social presentation influences web product use by readers.

Participatory behaviors

News creation, commentary and dissemination is now a participatory activity for a sizable group of Americans.

Some 37% of internet users have actively contributed to the creation, commentary, or dissemination of news. We arrived at that figure by adding up the number of internet users who said they did any of the following activities:

  • 25% of internet users have commented on an online news story or blog item about news that they read
  • 17% of internet users have posted links and thoughts about news on a social networking site like Facebook. That translates into 30% of social network site users.
  • 11% of internet users have tagged or categorized content online
  • 9% of internet users have contributed their own article, opinion piece, picture, or video to an online news site
  • 3% of internet users have used Twitter to post or re-Tweet a link to a news story or blog. That amounts to 18% of Twitter users.

What makes you feel like a participant online?

Ethnicity influences participation

The typical online news participator is white, 36 years-old, politically moderate and Independent, employed full-time with a college degree and an annual income of $50,000 or more. Interestingly, while white adults make up the bulk of the online news participator population, black internet users are significantly more likely to be news participators than their white and Hispanic counterparts. Almost half of black internet users (47%) are news participators, compared with just 36% of white internet users and 33% of Hispanic internet users. Not surprisingly, the youngest internet users (18-29 year-olds) are more likely than their older counterparts to be online news participators, with just under half of that age group (46%) contributing to the creation, commentary, or dissemination of news online. Men and women are equally likely to participate in online news production.

Participants consider a wider variety of sites to be “news” sites.

  • 320% more likely than other online news consumers to visit the site of a blogger (21% v. 5%)
  • 300% more likely to visit a news posting, ranking and rating site like Digg or NewsTrust (12% v. 3%)
  • 133% more likely to listen to a news podcast (21% v. 9%)
  • 133% more likely to visit the site of an international news organization such as the BBC (28% v. 12%)
  • 100% more likely to visit a site that offers a mix of news and commentary such as the Drudge Report or Huffington Post (24% v. 12%)
  • 73% more likely to visit the website of a radio organization (19% v. 11%)
  • 72% more likely to visit a site that specializes in a particular topic like health, politics or entertainment (50% v. 29%)
  • 55% more likely than other online news consumers to visit the website of a national or local newspaper (48% v. 31%)
  • 46% more likely to visit the website of a TV news organization (57% v. 39%)
  • 35% more likely to visit a news portal like GoogleNews or AOL (66% v. 49%)

Participators also appreciate websites that make the news experience interactive, personal, and helpful to social engagement. Naturally, they also highly prize news sites that facilitate commenting on stories.


Participatory elite

The Pew study says, “… People’s connection to the news is a social activity equally as much as it is a learning activity and productivity enhancer. Some 72% of Americans who follow the news at least now and then say they enjoy talking with friends, family, and colleagues about what is happening in the world and 69% feel that keeping up with the news is a social or civic obligation. Moreover, in the age of technological social networking, some now say they rely on the people around them to tell them when there is news they need to know. Half of Americans (50%) say that describes them very well or somewhat well.

A notable number of internet users are beginning to treat news organizations, particular journalists, and other news mavens as nodes in their social networks. In this survey we found that 57% of online Americans use social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn – and 97% of them are online news consumers.  Some 51% of the social networking users who are in the online-news population say that on a typical day they get news from people they follow on sites like Facebook. That amounts to 28% of all internet users who get news via social networking with friends.

In addition 23% of the social networking users who get news online say they specifically get news from news organizations and individual journalists they follow in the social networking space.

What do journalists need to do about this?

What do news businesses need to do?

Is this news?

New York Times Guantanamo docket

New York Times Faces of the Dead

APM’s Budget Hero.

New York Times Word Train

Freedom to fail

Minnesota Public Radio’s Linda Fantin and the Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller on citizen journalists

Fantin: Talk to anyone who started a citizen journalism site or community. They’ll say, “Okay, it took over my life, then it took over my wife’s life, and now we actually have to make money and put food on the table, so we sort of tried to get interns, but we can’t sustain it.” And in terms of the Public Insight Network, we made this commitment at the offset that we could contact everyone at least once a month. Well, so, two things either have to happen in it if — right now the network grows at 2,000 sources a month without any real effort on our part. That’s just simply with outreach and the spread of information.

Fantin: Well, Amanda Michel at ProPublica, I think, she’s very open about what she learned from her work on OffTheBus with Huffington Post, and now what’s she doing now with ProPublica, which is sort of use citizens to help do investigative journalism, and what you find is that it’s very, very hard. It’s hard because there is a certain amount of information that you can teach people, but on the back end the fact-checking and other things that have to go on in order to make sure that there’s integrity in what you’re reporting. And I’m not here to say that there’s integrity behind what every paid reporter does now. It’s just that this idea we’re gonna have a citizen corps of journalists — or an army of journalists, who for free, are gonna go out there and do the work that people are doing now is—

Miller: It’s just not quite that easy.

Is citizen journalism an achievable goal?

Realistic expectation?

Pipe dream?


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