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Get Smart About Your Readers: Ideas & Insights
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How traditional and online news audiences differ

(Rich Gordon)

A new research report from the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press offers some valuable insights into the nature of today's audience for news.

The report nicely segments the audience into four groups based on their interest in news and their primary news sources:
  • Traditionalists (46 percent of American adults) rely almost exclusively on traditional media sources (TV, newspapers, radio). This is the biggest audience in terms of population, and also the oldest (with a median age of 52). They make up half of all the adults who read a newspaper yesterday and an even greater share (60 percent) of adults who watched TV news yesterday. They are the most likely group to be poor, retired and not to have completed high school or college.

  • Integrators (23 percent of adults) name a traditional medium as their main news source but also go online frequently for news. This group is younger (median age of 44), highly educated (almost half have college degrees compared to just 19 percent of the Traditionalists) and affluent (4 in 10 have household incomes greater than $75,000). They get news from many sources and spend the most time with the news of any of the segments. While using online news sources frequently, they also watch TV news as much as the Traditionalists and are even more likely to read newspapers. The core of this group is made up of Baby Boomers, now 44 to 62 and in the prime of their careers.

  • Net-Newsers (13 percent of adults) say the World Wide Web is their main news source and use it frequently. Not surprisingly, this is the youngest group (median age of 35) and the best-educated (more than half are college graduates). While almost a decade younger on average than the Integrators, they are comparably affluent. They are the most likely to have online access at work and are slightly more likely than the Integrators to have access to the latest technology (home broadband, digital music players and smart phones).

  • The Disengaged (14 percent of adults) basically express a lack of interest in news. They are disproportionately young, poor (35 percent have household incomes under $30,000) and poorly educated (seven in 10 have a high school degree or less).
(If you do the math, you will find there is another 4 percent of the population who did not name a primary news source or named the Internet as their main source but rarely go online. In terms of their news behaviors, they are probably similar to the Disengaged. I'm going to ignore them in the rest of this post.)

The Pew Report, "Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources," is the latest in a series of biennial news consumption surveys going back into the 1990s. It is based on telephone interviews with 3,615 adults between April and June of 2008, selected to reflect the entire population of U.S. adults. While it suffers from the limitations of any survey research - especially, people's tendency to overstate their news interest and usage - the Pew project is an essential resource for anyone interested in understanding news audiences.

I'm particularly interested in the ways this research can help frame perhaps the biggest challenge traditional media companies face: developing differentiated news products for traditional channels and the Web.

Media companies are coming to realize that they need to differentiate their traditional and digital products - in part because digital environments such as the World Wide Web are inherently better at delivering certain kinds of experiences, and in part because the core audience for digital platforms is often different from the core audience for traditional media.

In the newspaper industry, this drive to differentiate has accelerated in the past year or two because of business and economic factors. Print newspapers can no longer afford to try to serve all readers, so newsroom leaders are trying to focus on their most important customers and eliminate content that doesn't help support readership. For print, the mantra today is: "tailor the newspaper for people who we know still want a newspaper." Meanwhile, with print revenue in decline, newspaper companies are increasingly focusing on ways to increase online usage and advertising.

Pew's goals are to document changes in news interests and usage, and to describe the differences between audience segments. I'm looking at the same data through a slightly different lens: understanding the difference between the news audiences in traditional media and the Web. Here are of some of the things I've found.
  1. Even after almost 15 years of online news, Traditionalists make up half the adult population. Those of us who fall into the Integrator or Net-Newser segments sometimes forget how many people still use news media the way they always have. At this point, it should be obvious that traditionalists are unlikely to change their behaviors, so it's critical to focus digital news initiatives on the needs of the other two segments.

  2. The TV news audience is dominated by Traditionalists. Leaving out the Disengaged and taking into account the amount of time people reported using different media channels, about 60 percent of TV news usage comes from the Traditionalist segment.

  3. The online news audience is dominated by the Net-Newsers. Again, taking into account both the size of this segment and time spent with different media, about 60 percent of online news usage is generated by Net-Newsers.

  4. The audience for print newspapers comes closest to reflecting the population as a whole. Traditionalists generate about half the usage, Integrators about a third, and Net-Newsers the remainder. This is close to the share of the total population represented by each segment.

  5. The audience for newspapers and TV news is especially interested in these topics: Travel, community news, religion, health, crime and local government. These are topics (among a list of 18 that Pew asked about) that Traditionalists and Integrators are most likely to say they follow closely.

  6. The audience for the Web is especially interested in these topics: science/technology, culture/arts, international affairs, business/finance, celebrity news, sports, politics/Washington and entertainment. These are topics that Integrators and Net-Newsers are most likely to say they follow closely.

  7. While Net-Newsers are just an eighth of the total population, they are the core users of most unique-to-online functions. They make up about two-thirds of the regular users of online news audio and video, more than half of the readership of blogs, and more than half the users of RSS readers. They also dominate usage of social network sites.

  8. Net-Newsers and Integrators are equally knowledgeable about national/international news facts - and both are more knowledgeable than the Traditionalists. This conclusion is based on answers to three questions posed in the survey: name the party in control of the House of Representatives (Democrats), name the U.S. secretary of state (Condoleeza Rice), and identify from among four choices the prime minister of Great Britain (Gordon Brown). Among Net-Newsers and Integrators, about 7 in 10 got the House question right, about 6 in 10 knew the secretary of state, and about 4 in 10 could pick out the British prime minister. On all questions, these groups scored significantly better than the Traditionalists.

  9. Net-Newsers are significantly less interested in local news topics. Asked what news topics they follow closely, Net-Newsers are significantly less interested than Traditionalists and Integrators in crime, community news and local government. No doubt this is partly because the Net-Newsers are the youngest group, but given inevitable growth in the Net-Newsers' share of the population, this finding makes me fearful for the future of democracy at the local level.
Take all of this information, add in some known drivers of online usage - networked content, breaking news and online community - and you have a recipe for a news Web site that is both different from its related traditional media product (print or TV) and will appeal to the core online audience.

By Rich Gordon (
Rich Gordon is Associate Professor and Director of Digital Technology in Education at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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