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In today’s technology-rich media environment, people have several options to choose from. Many fear this “high choice” media environment is drawing a majority of people away from the news. Research has found that with more options and convenience online, politically uninterested citizens — sometimes categorized as “avoiders” or “apoliticals” —  may immerse themselves in the world of entertainment and escape political information all together (Hindman, 2009; Prior, 2007). This trend raises a larger question: How embedded is news consumption in people’s online lives?

To answer this question, we propose to examine online news consumption in relation to people’s total Internet use during our fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. Our user behavior analysis will rely on large-scale Web use datasets from comScore, a company that measures Internet use from the computers of 2 million people in about 170 countries. We will conceptualize the Internet as a network of interconnected websites, linked to one another if they have audiences in common. In such a network, websites that cluster together suggest affinity groups that are not due to a priori classifications but emerge from shared usage by consumers. Further, websites that share users with a large number of other websites would appear more central because they are better connected in this network.

We are especially interested in where news websites stand in such networks. Analysis of these networks over the years would reveal the relative location of news in people’s online habitats. If news websites occupy central positions, they can be considered the online meeting grounds of people with otherwise varied Web-use patterns; this begets a healthy democracy. On the contrary, peripheral positions of news websites would be a greater cause for concern. More specifically, we pose the following broad question:

  • How central or peripheral is news use in relation to people’s use of other websites?

Online news presents itself in myriad categories. It would be interesting to see how various types of news websites are located on networks of Internet use. This specific question, posed as follows, would help understand the role of new production and distribution platforms for the democratic potential of news:

  • How central or peripheral are news aggregators -- online extensions of legacy news media (TV versus newspapers) and digital news startups, respectively -- in relation to peoples’ overall Web use?

Having established the location of news in relation to all kinds of websites, we would like to focus on online news landscapes alone by investigating how news websites cluster based on shared usage. The composition of these clusters will shed light on possibly distinct news consumption cultures. More specifically, we would like to study:

  • Are there clusters of news websites generally consumed together by audiences and on what basis do such clusters form?

We propose to conduct this analysis separately on global as well as U.S. Web use data (comScore provides separate worldwide and U.S. panels).  From each panel, we propose to include the top 1,000 most popular websites in our sample. For the U.S. data, we plan to analyze Web use for separate key demographics.

References

Prior, M., 2007. Post-broadcast democracy: how media choice increases inequality in political involvement and polarizes elections, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hindman, M. S. (2009). The myth of digital democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Esther Thorson, professor and associate dean at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, as well as director of research at RJI, contributed to initial discussions in initiating this project.

Harsh Taneja  
 
University fellow

Angela Xiao Wu  
 
Guest blogger



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