Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Who's Polling Who, Part Two

Yesterday's post looked at a Gallup poll on "where you get your news," its findings and implications. Similarly full of endless possibilities for interpretation is this Pew poll showing that in 2008, as the headline notes, "Internet Overtakes Newspapers as News Source." Howard Weaver has already noted that "the Internet IS NOT a source of news; it’s a delivery system." Howard does this in a post trashing a post by Jeff Jarvis. Why do the heathen rage around Jarvis? There is a reason.

Doug Fisher has added to this by noting that these polls really need to be more exact in asking the questions for the same reason. To summarize his points: "While newspapers are, yes, a 'medium,' generally a newspaper ... is merely the outward embodiment of a news organization -- the actual 'source.' Likewise 'television.' But the Internet is the outward embodiment of .... what? Well, news organizations, yes. But also aggregation sites, bloggers, pr agencies, ad agencies, corporations -- technically, anyone with a computer. To call the Internet a 'source' really does start to mangle the term. In this context, newspaper, television and online are all methods of distribution - media. ... If Pew is going to talk about sources, it needs to start breaking out what those specific sources are online, at least by type."

I would add the following notes:

1. Multiple answers were allowed. Thus, 145 percent of the American public uses the Internet, television and newspapers as its primary news source. In 2001, 132 percent used the Internet, television and newspapers as their primary news source. Yes, I know that's not what it means, and my field is not statistics and polling, but speaking as a copy editor, how can there be multiple answers allowed to the question "Where do you get most of your..."? "Most" means "the majority of." "I get most of my news from more than one source" means pretty much the same as "I get a lot of my news from a lot of sources" which is perilously close to "I get it from a bunch of places and maybe I don't really keep track."

2. "News" only means "national and foreign news." "News" in this context does not mean "local news." Since people are increasingly saying that they depend on newspapers for local news because they can get national and foreign news on the Internet, this makes sense; but then using "news" in the headline is oversimplification. Of course, every copy editor has written headlines that oversimplify.

3. The news, if you are publishing a printed newspaper, could be this: According to a Pew poll, in 2005, 35 percent of people said they got most of their news from newspapers. In 2008, 34 percent said they did so -- i.e., no real change, even as circulations were falling and ad dollars were disappearing. In 2008, 28 percent of people 18 to 29 said they got most of their news from newspapers. A year earlier, it had been 23 percent; two years earlier, 29 percent; in other words, whatever happened in 2007 was made up for in 2008. According to this survey, the Internet's gains have come at the expense of TV among younger people, not from newspapers. But since we have all been blasting holes in this survey, this may not mean much.

4. But here's an even more interesting thing. In 2005, the percentage of people who said they got most of their news from newspapers fell off the roof -- by 10 percentage points, to the level it has held pretty consistently since then. But the jump in Internet numbers did not happen until 2008. In fact, the Internet figure fell, by about the same percentage though smaller in percentage points, as newspapers in 2005. What happened from 2004 to 2005? Perhaps the rise in blogging at a time when it was not yet socially acceptable to say you got most of your news from the Internet. I have a suspicion those numbers spiked in 2008 because it was the first year in which you could say you got most of your news from the Internet and not be looked at as somewhat light. This also was part of Obamamania.

5. But if you put both these polls together, 1 out of every 3 Americans, and the numbers may or may not dip slightly for 18-to-29-year-olds, gets news daily from a print newspaper. In 2008. A lower floor in Pew than Gallup, but still a seeming floor.

The debate about online vs. print tends to be among those, many of them baby boomers, who see it as a Manichean struggle in which one must win to the utter defeat of the other, whereas for many younger people, it is just the world in which they live and the issue is not as emotionally weighted. Younger people may ignore newspapers in droves, but it's the boomer readers (I am talking about civilians rather than people in the industry) who seem to wish newspapers would just go away, perhaps so that they would feel they made the right decision in getting news online free -- no guilt, not my fault if newspapers go under, just the historical dialectic.

But this is also looked at as a zero-sum game because it was presented as a zero-sum win by early adopters and tech enthusiasts who saw the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. Online must triumph, not just find its place, because otherwise its prophets are just ordinary blokes like the rest of us, proponents of a new technology that soon enough will be just another technology, and not visionaries of a universal solution, a Heaviside Layer unseen by hackneyed mortals. The various forms of the singularity are not here yet. They may come, although I figure Skynet has equal odds.

Anecdotally, what you read on posts whenever a paper does something to cut back seems to be baby boomers -- mostly men -- who exult that they had abandoned the print paper. I suspect these are the "give me red meat" readers -- the ones who see the news as giving them daily grist for their mill of how the world is all screwed up and let me tell you why. The Internet is a superior medium for making yourself feel good about being pissed off. If these polls have any validity, though, they would indicate this -- edit newspapers for the 30 percent who are truly interested, not for baby boomers per se.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Having lived most of my life in or near rural areas, I am interested in how readers in those regions are best served. In the area of Pennsylvania where I work, we have areas where Internet service is more difficult to get and cell phone service is poor or nonexistent.

In this region, there are also members of Anabaptist churches (Amish, Mennonite, Brethren, etc.) who choose not to use computers or the Internet to varying degrees.

I wonder if rural news delivery will depend on printed paper longer than urban and suburban regions do. The "digital divide" has not been cured, so if the poll included a representative number of rural residents in addition to urban and suburban residents, then the poll results might have been affected by the cost and availability of Internet service.

Do Gallup or Pew say where the people they polled lived?

-- Barbara Phillips Long