A few years ago, more than 90% of all American households halted work and play every evening to catch the evening news. Now, millions of younger Americans never watch a commercial TV newscast, and are turning to new forms of media, many generated on the Net. Cable and newspapers haven't been hit as hard as commercial TV yet, but the generational media divide is now measurable. The Net is redrawing the mediascape.
These kids devouring information online are re-working the mediascape in cyberspace, creating an enormous generational information divide. Although we often talk of technology in sweeping terms, when it comes to real-world changes, technology-driven changes are highly selective. They sweep away some forms of media like a tidal wave, and inexplicably leave others standing unchanged. In the case of commecial broadcast news, dying for years, the Net is polishing it off.
A new study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press documents two significant trends: Internet news is becoming ever more mainstream, yet growing numbers of Americans are losing the news habit altogether. Fewer people say they enjoy following the news regularly, at least as news is traditionally defined; more than half pay attention to national news only when something important is happening. More Americans than ever watch the news with remote control in hand, ready to flee stories they consider boring or irrelevant. This finding underscores the importance of that little wireless zapper, proving it to be one of the most political pieces of technology ever.
Regular viewership of network news has fallen from 38% to 30% in the past two years, while local news viewership declined from 64% to 56%. Yet fully one in three Americans go online for news at least once a week, compared to 20% two years ago. And 15% say they receive daily news reports from the Net, up 6%.
Among younger, better-educated American news consumers, the Internet's impact is even more dramatic. Many more college graduates under 50 hit the Net daily for news than regularly watch a nightly network newscast. In fact, the Pew survey finds that people who are interested in the news and go online tend to watch less TV news all the time (The rise of Net news and related formats have less impact on non-broadcast news, apparently. The Pew Center found little evidence that Net news significantly drives down regular use of cable news, daily newspapers or radio news.
It stands to reason, though, that as many of these traditional news media appear on the Net and Web themselves, their use among younger Americans is also likely to decline.
The survey underscores the impact of two powerful factors that drive Net news: interactivity and the rise of Open Media news outlets.
Younger Americans who've grown up using interactive technologies -- the zapper, Sega and Nintendo systems, cable channels, the Net -- are increasingly accustomed to tailoring their news consumption: they want information of particular interest to them, at the times they choose to receive it. They demand the right to alter the media they receive. Older Americans raised on passive, pre-interactive media -- papers, newsmagazines, TV news that offer few choices and little control -- are much more likely to stick with traditional news. Thus, the across-the-board aging audiences of TV, newspapers and many magazines.
The growth of Net news has had a stunning impact on the way Americans, particularly those with access to technology, get information on business and financial matters. According to the Pew study, for active investors -- those who have traded stocks within the past six months -- the Net has largely supplanted traditional media as the leading source for stock quotes and investment advice. Here, the power of Netizens to tailor their own media is enormous and profound. 58% of active traders told Pew pollsters that they have customized stock portfolios online.
This is a staggering statistic -- such portfolios didn't even exist a decade ago. Now they're one of the primary tools for a completely new kind of financial transaction -- e-trading. And a significant percentage of financial sites online also offer breaking news and commentary, reflecting and affecting the markets they deal in.
The generational divide concerning media has been speculated about for years, but it's now quite measurable: Fewer than one in three young adults (31%) say they enjoy keeping up with the news, while more than half (57%) of those age 50 and over say they do. Though younger consumers say they don't like the news as much, they say they do like having a wide variety of information sources from which to choose. Older Americans say they often feel overwhelmed by the increasingly crowded media landscape.
(Caveat: I think serious terminology problems arise when it comes to describing younger Americans' tastes in news. Just as many pollsters and journalists don't consider gaming a significant part of culture, entertainment and technology often aren't considered news. My own belief is that younger Americans, especially those on the Net, are actually information junkies, but the kinds of news they like and the form in which they receive it is very different from their parents' tastes and from the way news is defined by journalists and educators. The kids I encounter online devour enormous amounts of information on a daily basis. That makes sweeping descriptions of their information habits suspect.)
Commercial broadcast news has less function all the time; its looming demise should have been obvious for years. Cable, much more interactive, offers many more options, often in the informal, even satirical (you could watch the convention coverage of Comedy Central's "the "Daily Show" every night and learn much more about the political conventions than on any network), and flexible format that interactive news consumers expect and, increasingly, have grown up with. With news their primary offering, cable-news channels don't have to toss out expensive entertainment programming or advertising to present news. Cable news also pays less homage to outdated anchor formats that have suffocated traditional news presentation for years.
Open source, though a movement in software rather than media per se, has sparked much of the evolution of successful open media, because it introduced the idea of information sharing online. The Net, however, is spawning many new kinds of news media: Web logs, specialized sites like this one, information-sharing exchanges from Napster to Gnutella, messaging services relaying one-to-one news; wire service- like news providers like C-Net. Some are not considered "news" in the traditional sense. But they are very journalistic. They do offer news and information, not only daily but continuously, and about everything from finance to culture to quilting to pet care.
Since the dinosaur-like TV anchors ruled the media world a decade or so ago, the mediascape has become unrecognizable, a rapidly changing work-in-progress. The past decade demonstrates that nobody can predict the media future, only try to hang on and watch while it continues to evolve, and while younger news consumers construct a radically new kind of information system for the first time in centuries.