by Mark Jurkowitz

Entering its second decade as a potent information technology, the internet is the subject of endless fascination, speculation and, at times, even consternation. In some scenarios, it is seen as the inexorable force that will render the printed page, the high-paid anchorperson, and the concept of an elite gatekeeper media obsolete. Yet at the same time, there are serious questions about whether online news can ever develop a business model that will enable it to support the kind of quality journalism that for now remains the near exclusive domain of the beleaguered old media.

A new study of America’s news consumption habits by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press helps put the web’s role in the media landscape into sharper focus. And what the new survey of more than 3,200 US adults finds is that the so-called internet revolution should be more accurately characterized as an internet evolution.

In a fragmenting media environment, online news has very quickly become a major media player, with routine usage permeating American society and spreading significantly into every generation of news consumers — not simply the under 35 crowd that most eagerly adapted to it. Valued largely for its ease, convenience and speed, online news continues to grow at a time when other media platforms — from nightly news broadcasts to radio news to newspaper journalism — have been steadily losing viewers, readers and listeners. And the internet has played a role in cutting into those old media market shares.

At the same time, the internet — to this point at least — has not been a cataclysmic media innovation that has obliterated or even substantially supplanted its ancestors. While the struggles of once dominant mass media outlets are well documented, longstanding predictions about the demise of the network newscast have proved wrong and online versions of newspapers are now helping slow the overall erosion of newspaper readers. Despite the convenience of news via computer, the survey finds that 50 % of Americans say they use two or more news platforms in a typical day and those who go online for news still spend more time getting information from non-web sources.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s “State of the News Media Study 2006,” which was released earlier this year and included an in-depth look at a day’s worth of online journalism, concluded that “virtually all original newsgathering…was still being done by the old media” and said that thus far, the notion of the internet spawning “a new form of journalism” was “premature.”

The new Pew survey likewise suggests that that thus far, online news has succeeded largely because of its ability to package existing information rather than to generate its own journalistic identity or cachet.

“For the most part, online news has evolved as a supplemental source that is used along with traditional news media outlets,” the Pew report states.

The survey makes clear that in roughly a decade, internet news has become an integral part of an expanding media smorgasbord. Consumers, given ever more options for finding news, are spreading their consumption among information outlets. And rather than claiming to be overwhelmed or confused about the proliferation of those sources, multi-tasking Americans seem to be warmly embracing it. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents to the study said they like having so much information available to them, while only 28 percent described themselves as victims of media overload — numbers that were basically consistent through every age demographic.

The Internet Grows Up

Ten years ago, the idea of getting news from a computer was a novelty. Today, almost one-in-three Americans say they spend three or more days a week gathering news online, choosing big content aggregators such as Google News and Yahoo! News but also perusing the websites of such well branded news gatherers as CNN and The New York Times.

Another sign of the internet’s maturation as a medium is the rate at which its use is spreading from younger adults into the Baby Boomer cohort and well beyond. While the Pew survey finds that the percentage of 18-to 24-year-olds who say they regularly get news online has remained stable in the past six years, there has been significant growth in all of the older age groups — the number of regular users has gone up by 11 percentage points in the 25-29 group; up by 17 points in the 30-34 age bracket, and up by 12 points in the 35-49 group and the 50-64 demographic. Even among those ages 65 and older — the most techno-wary age group in society — the number of those who routinely seek news in cyberspace grew to 11% in 2006, up from 8% in 2000.

The changing habits of these older news consumers is one manifestation of a new media environment in which people are less likely to congregate around the traditional mass media. Older Americans have long been a core constituency of the newspaper and network news audience. But in recent years, their loyalty to the daily broadsheet and the national 6:30 pm newscast has dropped off noticeably.

Meantime, as more people hunt for news online, the amount of time they spend getting news on a typical day has remained virtually unchanged from 1996 to 2006. Thus, as the internet has been incorporated in the daily news habit, it has clearly nibbled away at the time spent reading papers or watching TV news.

And even as online journalism faces challenges convincing consumers to pay for information and attracting a wide range of lucrative advertising, it is expanding its reach at a time when the audiences for local TV news, radio news, newspapers and nightly network newscasts are steadily shrinking. In the past 13 years, for example, the percentage of people who say they regularly watch a national evening newscast has plummeted from three-in-five to little more than one-in-four.

But It’s Still a News Supplement

Yet even with that dramatic drop-off, the ABC, CBS and NBC broadcasts attract more than 20 million combined viewers each evening. And despite the departures of Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw and the death of Peter Jennings, none of the big three networks has chosen to fold its signature news show. (Katie Couric’s September debut in the CBS anchor chair has generated considerable buzz and prompted speculation that the genre may be in the process of reinventing itself.)

The newspaper industry — battered by declining circulation, flat revenues and falling stock prices — is still reeling from the forced breakup of the Knight Ridder chain, once considered one of the best and most successful journalistic stewards. Still, the industry remains surprisingly resilient and willing to experiment with everything from shrinking the physical size of the paper to selling ads on previously sacrosanct pages. And as the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s current “State of the News Media” report concludes, the print press, despite its problems, has not plunged into “a sudden death spiral.”

All of which helps explain why new media technologies don’t simply vaporize their aging predecessors — and why the internet is described in the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey as a “supplemental source” of information.

One key news consumption trend that has not been seriously affected by the proliferation of internet news is the reliance on multiple delivery devices for news. In 1996, 52% of the public used at least two platforms — such as TV, radio, and newspapers — to get news on a typical day. Today, that number is still 50%. And a mere 4% say they use the web as their only source of news on a normal day.

The survey also suggests a rationale for those numbers. Right now, the internet is seen as more of a medium of convenience than content, with people lauding its accessibility, speed and ease of navigation but with only 5 % of regular users citing it as a source of distinctive subject matter. (A more substantial 10 % of those users say they do associate online news with access to a healthy variety of sources and views.)

Years ago, I used to attend journalism seminars at which veteran journalists spoke in nearly apocalyptic terms about their looming obsolescence in the online age. As a media reporter I once wrote a futuristic story that included the specter of the wind whistling through the cracked windows of a deserted Boston Globe newsroom in this digitally-dominated decade.

Not surprisingly, the Pew Research Center news consumption survey offers up a far more nuanced and complex assessment of the role of the internet in American journalism to date. While online news has quickly emerged as a big part of the nation’s increasingly diverse news diet, it is not yet, for most of us, the main course. That’s largely because it takes reporters to produce a main course. And, at least for now, reporting remains very much a signature product of the traditional media.