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Pew takes stock of the brave new media world

Whether you're a journalist or a consumer of journalism, you already know that people get their news differently today than they did a decade ago. But a new study from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and Project for Excellence in Journalism documents--to sometimes breathtaking effect--just how much the internet has transformed the media landscape.

A bevy of numbers stand out in the study, "Understanding the Participatory News Consumer," which was released Monday — including a few that suggest it won’t be easy to shift readers from a free to a pay-to-read model on the web. "The days of loyalty to a particular news organization on a particular piece of technology in a particular form are gone," the authors announce early on, and the data seem incontrovertible. 46 percent of respondents get their news from 4 to 6 platforms a day (including local and national newspapers, local and national TV, radio, and the web); in contrast, just seven percent get their daily news fix from a single source.

When it comes to online news in particular, meanwhile, 65 percent of respondents say they don't have a favorite web site--while just 21 percent say they have one favorite go-to site on which they rely. Given these tendencies, even an organization as strong as the New York Times--which is currently moving toward a metered system that would charge for some content--should be deeply concerned that any sort of pay-to-read arrangement will drive readers elsewhere.

Also noteworthy: 33 percent of cell phone owners use their phones to get news. 28 percent of internet users customized home pages--iGoogle, for example--to get a personally tailored range of information. And 37 percent of internet users have created, commented on, or distributed news using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Those last three numbers, which provide the basis for Pew's claim that the "Participatory News Consumer" is a growing type, might seem to hold out hope that new technologies could ultimately be the salvation of the news business rather than its undoing--provided that a business model capable of monetizing these new habits can be found. As Lee Rainie, director of Pew’s Internet & American Life, tells the Phoenix: “Eventually, the places that embrace social networking strategies and distribution mechanisms might well be able to convince advertisers that they have special access to attractive news consumers and could bring in more ad revenues.”

Before waxing too optimistic, though, consider the spookiest number in the study: just thirty-five percent (!) of 18-29 year olds say they follow the news all or most of the time, by far the lowest of any age group. (30-49 year olds have the next lowest total, with a comparatively robust 56 percent.) If these tech-savvy, news-disinterested young adults are simply showing some age-specific solipsism, and become more interested in news as they age, good for journalism. But what if their disinterest is a product of the new-media-saturated environment in which they've come of age, the news business's future looks a lot more grim.

Pew's findings also suggest that it may be easier to charge for forms of news rather than others. 87 percent of respondents said sports and athletes get enough coverage already; 75 percent said business and finance do; and 63 percent said we're already reading/hearing/seeing enough about international news and music and arts. (In contrast, 44 percent said there isn't enough coverage of scientific news and discoveries, and 41 percent said we need more religion and spirituality coverage.
 
But let's end on two relatively upbeat notes. For years, the possibility of citizens screening out information they're not interested in--and getting only the stuff they already know they want to read, from a perspective they're already comfortable with--has seemed like a dystopic downside of the internet era. But according to Pew, a whopping 82 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat enjoy serendipitous encounters with subjects they haven't previously thought about much--suggesting that the dangers of the "Daily Me" may have been exaggerated.

And finally, nearly 2/3 of respondents--63 percent, to be precise--say that major news organizations "do a good job covering all of the important news stories and subjects that matter to me.” Given the contempt that's frequently directed at the media, that's a surprisingly heartening figure--especially at a moment when journalism's long-term viability feels awfully shaky.

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