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For first time, you online news consumers outnumber those newspaper readers: the impact on politics

March 15, 2011 |  3:42 am

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Let's agree just between us not to tell our family members in the kitchen reading yesterday's news in today's newspaper.

But according to a major new study of how Americans use news media by the thoughtful folks over at the Pew Research Center, those newspaper readers have now been surpassed among news consumers.

For the first time in history, a larger percentage of Americans (46%) get their news online than get their news on that paper stuff that leaves their fingers ink-smudged (40%).

Only local television news (50%) still surpasses online as a source of news for Americans. And its lead is shrinking.

The little-noticed development has many major implications for American politics, how they operate and how they are consumed.

For decades, political and communications strategists have designed and scheduled their ....

... everyday events and campaign contents around how they look and sound on television, with the day's main message embedded in key sound bite moments near the beginning of the event, usually staged by 2 p.m. to allow time for editing to make the evening newscasts.

The goal has been to lead cable and broadcast news outlets, and to a lesser extent radio, to lift those moments as the 8-12 second capsule comment to deliver to viewers at home.

Just as ATMs have enabled customers to do their banking at any hour, innovations like TiVo and Hulu have enabled millions to watch their preferred programs whenever they darn well please. But what happens when blogs or independent news sites with little overhead costs can post their own reports and videos on political events at all hours, bypassing the often maligned mainstream media filters?

Given the freedom of online, the space there unlimited by advertising or the clock, the intriguing array of available styles vs traditionally robotic newswriting and the potential a Town Crierglobal audience for anything, politicians can and are bypassing the old standard news transmission systems.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, some TV channels thought they were genuine pioneers to include videotaped debate questions from Facebook users.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour hasn't even announced his presidential campaign yet. But already he has a fulltime political veteran cultivating online contacts to deliver his political messages to receptive sites when the time comes, completely free of the usual media filter.

President Obama does specific online events to answer questions for the same reason. His news conferences are delivered live online by the White House website. And aides interact with the audience there afterward, not surprisingly adding their own positive spins for immediate consumption and, they hope, sharing with others.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's staff, among others, distributes and posts full videos of his speeches, enabling news gatherers and consumers to spot their own favorite sound bites and pass them on to friends and family virally. C-SPAN's encyclopedic video archives going back to 1987 can be searched and video segments individually edited and embedded online.

Traditional media members often dismiss Obama's online events, for example, as non-newsworthy gimmicks because the questions are uncrafted to draw the president out on difficult subjects and Obama only repeats what he's said many times elsewhere.

True enough. What that impression completely misses, however, is that citizen participants are not there online for news, in the professional media sense.

They are there instead as participants within an impromptu, semi-spontaneous community of strangers to make a connection, even a mere electronic one. To feel empowered as an individual with their own independent, firsthand electronic link to the president of the United States, like an online handshake that opens them to receive any president's desiredFireside Chat by president roosevelt 1944messages today and beyond.

Like fervent fans beg even non-celebrities on Twitter to Follow them back as a mere nod to their existence.

And the ability to establish such direct connections circumvents for many the need for professional news gatherers to assemble and pass on their official unofficial packaged versions. The way many of The Ticket's 60,000 Twitter followers and 6,600 Facebook fans interact with each other and the writers on various items, sharing opinions and tips.

Right now, such episodic though increasing interactions seem unlikely to replace the live mass events that generate campaign worker and voter enthusiasm, not to mention money.

But remember Rep. Ron Paul's 2007 "money bombs" when his online community of zealous followers garnered $5 million or more in one day with no overhead for a hotel banquet room?

What if an imaginative Obama strategist persuaded him to break major news during an online chat one day? How long would they then stay a connection gimmick, the way President Roosevelt's early fireside radio chats were seen as gimmicks?

People back then thought that president was talking to a mass of maybe 12 million people. Turns out, he was being heard by individual people, 12 million times.

So, how many times did those voters reelect the man who connected with them directly via radio? Now, that same phenomenon is evolving online.

The Pew study's data indicates the changes' eventual impact is far from fully determined. Other findings:

In 2010 online advertising revenue for the first time exceeded estimated newspaper advertising revenue.

Every media sector is losing audience except online.

It sure is nice to have more of you here, even if those other folks in the kitchen don't get it -- yet.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Christie D'Zurilla / Los Angeles Times; British Tourism; Getty Images (A Roosevelt fireside chat, 1944).

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