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Pew on the Internet and News: Conversation About Content is King

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, March 1 2010

Shorter Pew Internet study: "The public is clearly part of the news process now." Oh, and folks at TheNewYorkTimesFoxABCNBCCBSNPRDrudgeHuffingtonPostEtc: Forget about loyalty to your brand. Those days are gone.

There's a lot of interesting new data in the latest Pew Research Center/Pew Internet & American Life Project survey, which we're all chewing on this morning. After you get past the biggest headline, which is that people are largely infovores who graze everywhere for information, rather than sticking to one source loyally, here's what jumped out at me:

1. Conversation about content is king. Or, soon to be king, judging from the continued growth of participatory behavior around news content. Pew reports that:

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%).

2. Rising rates of participation have the potential to reshuffle the social order. That is, the advantages of participation appear to be most evident if you are an early adopter. We already know how young people are using social media to upend their seniors in the social order (think of that iconic photo of foxy Ana Marie Cox blogging while aging R.W. Apple and balding Jack Germond look quizzically over her shoulder). But Pew also finds that African-Americans are participating online at rates greater than whites or Hispanics, definitely a subject worth further exploration:

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.

3. The mobile internet is here, now.

Some 80% of American adults have cell phones today, and 37% of them go online from their phones. The impact of this new mobile technology on news gathering is unmistakable. One quarter (26%) of all Americans say they get some form of news via cell phone today–that amounts to 33% of cell phone owners.

4. Information overload is here, which means anyone with an interest in making sure their news reaches people has to pay close attention to how news now flows and to the production and usage of better filters.

Fully 70% agreed with that statement: “The amount of news and information available from different sources today is overwhelming.” Some 25% “completely agreed” with that statement and 45% “mostly agreed.”

But while people are overwhelmed, their personal social networks still get through to them:

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....
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. In other words, they have friended or become a fan of a journalist or news organization and they catch up on news through this relatively new channel of news....
Overall, 30% of internet users get news from friends, journalists or news organizations they follow on social networking sites on a typical day.

5. Are some people disconnecting from the worst news sources? I'm sure the Pew report will feed into already inflamed fears for the future of American journalism with its dire-seeming data about the decline of newspapers, but it's hardly clear that the online channel is bad for journalistic quality. Personally, I'd rather take heart from this encouraging fact: the more you "live in the future" (to crib from Nick Bilton), the less you rely on the very worst, in my subjective option, news source--local television "news." Pew reports that while local TV is still the most popular source for all Americans:

some demographic groups are particularly likely to watch local TV news on a typical day when compared with other groups: women, African-Americans, and older Americans (those 65 and older). By comparison, those who are internet users and those who have a cell phone but no landline are less likely to get local TV news on a typical day than non-internet users and those who have a landline phone.