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Online News Audience Growing Fast

The number of Americans reading news on the Internet is growing at an "astonishing rate," with one in five people using the worldwide network at least once a week to satisfy their appetite for information, according to a new study released Monday.

Most people, however, said they use the Internet to supplement, not replace, their traditional sources of news.

The growth reflects the Internet's tremendous growth. Just two years ago, only 6 percent reported going online for news, the Washington-based Pew Research Center's survey showed.

The survey said people reading news on the Internet also are disproportionately younger, better-educated, and affluent, and they place a higher value on getting up-to-date news.

The most popular subjects online were science, health, finance, and technology.

"The people who are college-educated, affluent—the people who might fall into the news-junkie category—they absolutely love the Internet," agreed Dean Mills, the journalism dean at the University of Missouri. "People want basically the same things with news as they've always wanted—dependable, up-to-date information. The Web lends itself to giving people that better than any vehicle we have now."

The study also described cable television's impact on news viewership as greater than the burgeoning Internet's, with fully 40 percent of Americans regularly watching cable news networks.

Cable's audience swelled to 60 percent, about the same as network news broadcasts and magazine shows combined, when specialty programs like the Weather Channel and ESPN were considered.

"Cable's advantage lies in its immediacy," the study said. "Americans say they would turn to cable channels first in the event of a big news story, whether it concerned politics, health, or sports."

George Harmon, chairman of the newspaper-editorial sequence at Northwestern University's journalism school, describes a "colossal gravitation" toward cable news in the hours after a major story, such as the death of Princess Diana. The same holds true for the Internet. "Site traffic is extremely heavy on the Web when you've got a blockbuster story," he said.

When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke earlier this year, for example, MSNBC's Web site reported a 150 percent increase in traffic from the previous month, or about 800,000 people a day hitting the site.

The study was bad news for nightly network news. It said only 38 percent of Americans, mostly older women, describe themselves as regular viewers, down from 60 percent in 1993. But television news magazines, such as 60 Minutes, 20/20 and Dateline NBC are growing in popularity, especially among younger viewers.

Readership of daily newspapers remained "remarkably stable," the study said. It found that Americans continue to rely heavily on their daily paper as a primary source of news, with 68 percent reading regularly, nt much different from the center's 1996 study.

But only 28 percent of people under 30 reported reading a newspaper within 24 hours of the survey, compared with 69 percent of seniors, "a far more dramatic generation gap than exists for television news consumption," the study said.

The Pew Research Center said its study was based on telephone interviews of 3,002 adults between April 24 and May 11. The study had a margin of error of about 2.5 percentage points.

Written By Ted Bridis

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