Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Access, Use and Preferences for Online Newspapers

Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Access, Use and Preferences for Online Newspapers

Article excerpt

During the past few years, the rapid growth of the Internet has changed the media landscape. Having realized the potential of the Web, more than 2,900 newspapers currently operate online, of which more than 1,800 are U.S.-based.(1) While online newspapers are trying to identify a niche in cyberspace, disagreement exists as to whether it will be a financially viable medium for them.

As with any communication technologies, the future of online (and print) newspapers eventually will be determined by public response. While the Internet is undergoing a rapid diffusion process, it is important to monitor not only how consumers use the Web as a news medium but also how potential users perceive online newspapers as compared to the print-and-ink format.

This study empirically examines the status of online newspapers in terms of access, use, and preference from the general public's perspective. Special attention is given to the demand for two different types of newspapers (national vs. local) in two different formats (online vs. print). The study found that most people still read the local newspaper in the ink-and-paper format, while national newspaper sites were gaining more ground online. By choosing key variables such as newspaper locality and by directly addressing the user's format preference, the survey goes beyond user demographics and has produced highly generalizable results with important competitive implications.

Literature review

Two major theories of mass communication appear to be most relevant to the questions addressed here regarding access to, use of and preferences for online newspapers. The first theory is diffusion of innovations, which Everett Rogers(2) and others have used successfully to account for the adoption of other communication inventions. According to the theory, the five most important characteristics of an innovation will determine the rate of adoption. These are relative advantage, the degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes; compatibility, the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being consistent with existing values, past experiences and needs of the receiver; complexity, the degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use; trialability, the degree to which an innovation may be experimented with on a limited basis, and observability, the degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others. Roger Fidler(3) added to this list a sixth attribute he considered critical to the adoption of new media in the general consumer market-familiarity, the degree to which new forms of media are related to earlier forms. An analysis of these six characteristics may help us explain and predict the extent to which online newspapers are adopted, and the nature of that process.

As Rogers(4) has pointed out, however, the new communication technologies have distinctive features for which the diffusion model does not readily account. Specifically, the new media are tool technologies rather than ends in themselves. Furthermore, he noted, adoption of these technologies as such is less significant than continued implementation and use. As Denis McQuail and Sven Windahl(5) have noted, the case of the diffusion of new communication technologies "is a reminder that different types of innovation may involve different types and sequences of innovation process." Uncertainties about how the adoption process might operate in the case of online newspapers therefore make the diffusion model somewhat problematic for understanding access, use and preferences for online services.

A second major theoretical approach that might help guide the researcher seeking to understand these processes might be uses and gratifications.(6) According to this perspective, a media audience's behaviors can be explained and predicted with knowledge of the social and psychological origins of the needs that generate expectations of the mass media, which leads to differential patterns of media exposure, resulting in other consequences, perhaps mostly unintended ones. …

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