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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The traditional notion that people go primarily to a handful of types of news outlets for their information appears to be less and less accurate.

Americans are now news grazers sampling, through the course of the day, a varied media buffet. Categorizing people by education, region, or income or trying to imagine them as primarily newspaper readers, or consumers mostly of local TV news, is increasingly futile.

Doing a close analysis of the latest data on news consumption, the shifts come into clearer relief. More than a third of Americans, some 36%, are regular consumers of four or more different kinds of news outlets – network news, local TV, newspapers, cable, radio, the Internet and magazines.

And the kinds of outlets are not always similar. For instance, the idea that some people regularly get their news just from television does not hold up. Only 8% of Americans fit that category, judging by a close secondary analysis of the latest Pew Research Center data on media consumption. A similarly small number, just 5%, cited print sources alone as the places they regularly go for news.

Even the notion that some people regularly rely only the Internet for news is not supported. A mere 2% reported online sites as their only regular news source.

Which media combinations are sought out most? For now, the largest group of people, 24%, seem to gravitate to some combination of TV and print as their regular source of news. That could be any combination of network, cable, local, newspapers or magazines, but the Internet and radio are not part of it.

And among those who regularly rely on just two or three types of media for news, online again is not popular. Just 9% of people who regularly use just two or three types of news outlets include the Internet in that mix.

And the vast majority of respondents (95%) consider themselves regular consumers of some news media.

In a sense, news consumption today should probably be viewed in the way diet is viewed in this age of plentiful, fast and often processed American food. The array of offerings is so vast and varied, being concerned mainly with what is offered seems futile; the proper concern may involve educating consumers about what they should imbibe.

The real crisis may be news obesity, consuming too little that can nourish citizens and too much that can bloat them.

Where do data say people are moving? A year ago we found only three of the media sectors undergoing general audience growth – the ethnic media, alternative weeklies and online. In all three, audiences can find narrowly targeted content in those sectors, and in the case of online, they can get it on demand.

Those factors continue to be important, and all three sectors appeared to continue growing in 2004. While the numbers for ethnic media are not always audited for accuracy, all of the indicators are rising. Consider that 14 new Spanish-language papers launched in 2003 alone, according to the Latino Print Network, five of them dailies, and that Clear Channel announced plans in 2004 to convert 25 stations to Spanish-language formats.

Alternative weekly newspapers saw a circulation gain of 3%, or 200,000 copies, in the latest audited year, 2003, according to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans who go online for news appeared to be still growing – slightly. In 2004, 42% of adults, or some 92 million Americans, went online for news, according to survey data, and about two thirds of those visited three times a week or more. The preferences of younger audiences suggest that the numbers will only continue to grow. The evidence also suggests that people are spending more time getting news online, and the projected growth in broadband is likely to make that trend grow as well.

In 2004 we can add to the list of those media that grew in audience one more: cable news saw modest growth – roughly 6% – in its median audience. The boost, however, was due mainly to campaign interest from September to November. The median audience for cable was effectively flat in 2003, and most analysts expect it to flatten again, since the growth in cable news distribution has reached its limit.

In local news, the decline in audiences for evening and late news showed signs of slowing in 2004, a major shift if it continues. Morning audiences, meanwhile, appear to be a growth area for local news.

Network nightly newscast audiences, on the other hand, seem to be losing the broadcast battle. Their audiences declined by another 2% in 2004. The networks also seem to be losing ground in the morning hours. While local news saw morning audiences rising, these audiences for the networks, which had been rising, were flat. NBC’s Today show lost audience, while ABC’s Good Morning America gained.

Who is hurting most? It appeared in 2004 to be America’s daily newspapers, which saw the decline in circulation accelerate. Daily circulation fell by .9% and Sunday by 1.5%, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations data, and that doesn’t include purging the 250,000 in phantom circulation associated with a host of circulation scandals at some of the country’s most prominent chains. Perhaps just as significant, the circulation declines cannot be attributed to newspapers’ going out of business. The number of papers has leveled, meaning the survivors are losing readers.

Radio’s audience continues to be stable, but the issue increasingly is not only how many are listening but how they are doing it – from satellite radio to the Internet to podcasting – downloading radio content on PDAs, phones and other technology.

News magazines appear to be in some flux. Time and Newsweek continued to have audience declines, but U.S. News saw a modest gain, as did some publications that have become more topical, including The New Yorker.