More People Turning to Web for Political News

Online news sources gained more clout in the 2004 elections, eroding the dominance of traditional news outlets such as newspapers and radio, according to a new survey.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project said that 37 percent of the adult population of the U.S. and 61 percent of the online population used the Web to get political news and as a form for discussing candidates and issues.

“The Internet became an essential part of American politics in 2004,” Lee Rainie, the director of the Web project, said. The Internet also became a source of direct political involvement, with millions of Americans donating to campaigns or volunteering their time through the Web.

Mainstream Acceptance

The Internet saw gains across the board, from trusted news sites such as CNN.com to the rise of political blogs, Rainie noted. Also up was the percentage of registered voters who said the Internet was their primary source of political news during the campaign, with 18 percent saying the Web was their first choice in 2004, up from 11 percent in 2000 and up six-fold from just 3 percent in 1996.

The data underscores a long-recognized trend in which the Web, viewed for some time as an outpost of alternative information, is gaining mainstream acceptance. It comes as many content sites are enjoying a resurgence in online advertising driven by keyword searches and other interactive marketing techniques.

The question of how best to transform increased traffic into revenues and profits continues to dog some online news outlets, but analysts say the boost to the legitimacy of the Web bodes well for online content and online commerce.

Analysts have long observed the gains made in terms of the Web’s reputation for delivering accurate and timely news as a key building block for growing overall Internet use and, by extension, e-commerce.

For instance, millions of users donated money to September 11 causes in the weeks after the terrorist attacks in 2001, many of them using the Web to send money for the first time. Forrester Research estimated afterwards that as many as 2 million new users were added to the e-commerce pipeline in the wake of that event.

Breaking Down Walls

“One-time events and other catalysts are what it takes to bring some people into the Web’s influence,” Forrester analyst Carrie Johnson told the E-Commerce Times. A user might not leap into buying online, but instead move gradually from surfing for news to sharing e-mail or participating in an online discussion.

“Anything, like the election, that attracts more people who are comfortable online is going to help e-commerce in the long run,” Johnson added.

The Web’s rise in the news arena clearly came at the expense of newspapers. The number of voters who called newspapers their primary source of news and information fell from 60 percent in 2000 to 39 percent last year. Forty percent of Web users said the medium played an important role in helping them decide how to cast their votes.

In the long run, the trend is likely to continue, Michael Cornfield, another Pew researcher, said. More young people will become engaged with the political process through the Web, he said, and the rise of new Web and mobile technologies will only deepen reliance on the Internet for timely news and information.

“The only change that would surprise us would be a reverse of the fundamental trend underwriting all other changes: the cycle by cycle expansion of the online citizenry,” he said.

Blogs in a Fog

The same reason that’s often used to lure online shoppers was cited as a main driver of political news viewing online, with 60 percent saying they did so because of the convenience of being able to access it whenever they wanted.

Four in 10 of the heavy Web users said they found it an important tool in helping them make a voting choice. While most relied on outlets such as CNN.com and the New York Times’ Web site, some 24 percent said they went to more non-traditional sources, including candidate Web sites and blogs.

Rainie said blogs rose in importance during the campaign because of their ability to influence not only voters but also thought leaders, with many political writers and others using them to take the pulse of the electorate.

The campaign saw the rise of blogs, previously viewed largely as a hobbyist medium, as a commercial entity as well. Some campaigns spent heavily on targeted ads that used keywords and other techniques to place ads on blogs.

The search for the right approach to make blogs pay continues, with everyone from Google to Ask Jeeves making investments in the arena in the past year.

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