Uses and Gratifications of Online and Offline News: New Wine in an Old Bottle?

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The newspaper once reigned as the dominant news medium in America. Faded black-and-white movies attest to how family members at breakfast tables read sections of the newspaper, which was as much a part of the meal as coffee and orange juice. There was the evening newspaper, too. In succeeding years, newspapers faced competition from radio and, later, television. Now online news threatens the venerable medium. Newspapers have responded by going online,1 reproducing their print media products on the Web with little regard for the different ways audiences may read and process offline and online news (Thalhimer, 1994). This study explores audience members’ motives and uses of online news and offline newspapers. The study aims to facilitate our understanding of the cognitive and affective responses to offline and online news consumption behavior.

INTERNET AUDIENCE USE

A recent review of the empirical literature on audience use of the Internet astutely noted, “In spite of the appropriateness and timeliness of the Internet as a topic of study, we know remarkably little about its selection and use” (Flanagin & Metzger, 2001). Some evidence suggests that Internet users are avid online news consumers (e.g., Aikat, 2000; Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2001). For example, a recent UCLA Center for Communication Policy (2001) study revealed that 53.6% of the respondents considered the Internet an important source for news information.

Uses of News

Research conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2001) shows steady increases in the use of online news sources and that 63% of online users go online for news. Some studies indicate that the Web may cultivate an informed electorate. A number of studies indicate that Web users are politically sophisticated and active, and that those “who already harbor an interest in political affairs are surfing the Internet, rather than television, for political information” Qohnson & Kaye, 2000, p. 873). An experimental study of American college students’ knowledge of international news reported that even short-term exposure to Web sources about foreign countries increased students’ knowledge about the countries (Griffin et al., 1997). Stempel, Hargrove, and Bernt (2000) found a symbiotic relationship between Internet news use and traditional news consumption that suggests how an online news user may also be an avid information seeker with offline news media. Hence, they contended, online news patronage was not responsible for the general decline in news consumption in the television (both network and local), newspaper, and magazine industries. Comparing these findings with a study on audience preferences across Internet, television, newspaper, radio, and magazine news outlets, the audience still prefers traditional media for general information such as weather, entertainment, sports, and general news (New Media Federation, 2002). Specifically, newspapers were cited as the most preferred source for entertainment news.

Gratifications of News Use

Traditionally, uses and gratifications researchers have been interested in why the audience seeks and consumes media content, including news content. This perspective sees audiences as motivated individuals who actively seek media content to fulfill cognitive and affective needs (e.g., Blumler, 1979; Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974; Rayburn, 1996). It is this gratifying media use experience that motivates repeat media gratification seeking through media usage (e.g., Palmgreen, Wenner, & Rayburn, 1981). A number of studies have identified the gratifications associated with news use. For instance, Katz, Guvrevitch, and Hass (1973) identified newspapers as a useful source for learning about society. Newspapers, by contrast, were seen as meeting a wider and less specialized set of needs. Similarly, Elliot and Quattlebaum (1979) found that newspapers provide surveillance of the environment needs but not entertainment. By the same token, Kippax and Murray (1980) tested the perceived importance of 30 media-related needs. They discovered that newspapers were judged as providing eight specific needs associated with an informational function—including understanding, knowledge, and credibility— instead of any emotional needs. Lichtenstein and Rosenfeld’s (1983) study yielded some additional insights. Their findings suggested that radio, television, magazines, and newspapers were regarded as sources of entertainment and information about everyday life. Magazines and newspapers were judged as useful sources of information about the government, but not as outlets for resolving loneliness (or emotional needs). Weaver (1980) suggested yet another news gratification. His findings established that when interest and uncertainty in political information was high, newspaper use was more strongly related to interpersonal discussion of political information than was television viewing.

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