Policy by the Numbers

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The Internet and news plurality

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Countries around the world have rules to ensure media plurality — the diverse ownership of news outlets so that no one owner can have undue influence over political discourse. Debates over the details of such rules are ongoing: the U.K. is looking at tightening its rules, while conversely, the U.S. might loosen its regulation.

With very few exceptions, current plurality rules have focused narrowly on traditional media – newspapers, TV and radio. As people shift their news consumption online, this looks increasingly outdated – not because online news providers need regulation, but because assessing plurality purely by looking at offline media is to miss the huge contribution made by the diversity of online news. In both the U.S. and the U.K., for example, people are more likely to get their news online than through radio broadcasts or printed newspapers (though TV remains ahead of all other media). And half of the people online in Italy say the Internet is their main source of news. In this new landscape, assessing plurality purely by looking at offline media means missing the huge contribution made by the diversity of online news.

One particularly important factor is that people are more “promiscuous” online, meaning they are much more likely to get news from a range of providers, thereby reducing the influence of any one media owner. For instance, in the U.K. the typical newspaper reader goes through 1.26 newspapers, but those getting news online visit 3.46 news sites. The reasons are obvious enough. Online news is generally free (so, unlike newspapers, there’s no cost to getting a second opinion), social media and news consolidators such as Google News link to sources that a consumer might not default to, and so on. As such, the Internet has been a powerful force for plurality of consumption.

The Internet also gives consumers access to new sources of news, including:
  • Publications that are found exclusively online, such as Yahoo! News and Huffington Post;
  • Blogs;
  • Foreign news;
  • Trade journals or other niche publications;
  • and “crowd-sourced” news via social media.
In aggregate, these new online sources provide an experience that is far more diverse and rich than what’s available offline. Consider the following (derived from Doubleclick Ad Planner):
  • Yahoo News is a top 10 news site in 14 out of 30 countries with the largest online populations;
  • All 10 countries with the largest online populations have at least one online-only publication among their top 3 news sites;
  • and approximately 40% of visitors to websites of U.K. newspapers such as the Guardian and the Daily Mail are located outside the country.
The data suggests that the Internet is making a substantial and growing contribution to news plurality, bringing new news sources to consumers and encouraging more diverse consumption of both new and preexisting sources. Those making plurality policy should take these encouraging developments into account.

posted by Robert Kenny, Founder of Communications Chambers, a growing association of leading experts in the fields of telecommunications, media and technology