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Online Newspapers Increasingly Popular

The amount of time Internet users spend reading online newspapers jumped significantly between 2007 and 2008, according to the just-released annual survey conducted by the University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future.
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Internet users in the U.S. reported they spent an average of 53 minutes per week reading online newspapers, compared to 41 minutes per week in 2007. Of course, that figure may in part reflect the intense interest in the presidential election; we'll have to wait until next year to determine if the upward trend is holding.

The survey suggests Americans are conflicted regarding the economic collapse of the newspaper industry, which has already resulted in a number of publications folding. Twenty-two percent of Internet users reported they had stopped their subscription to an ink-and-paper newspaper or magazine because they could access its content online.

On the other hand, the percentage of Internet users who said they would miss the print edition of their newspaper if it disappeared increased from 56 percent in 2007 to 61 percent in 2008. As the threat of newspapers disappearing becomes more real, Americans are apparently becoming more cognizant of their value.

Separately, the center's World Internet Project studied the impact of the Internet in 23 other nations. It discovered a common trend in every country it examined: When Internet usage reaches 30 percent of the population, readership of print newspapers begins to decline.

Eighty percent of Americans now report they use the Internet, spending an average of more than 17 hours per week online. Twenty-four percent of American households have at least three computers.

"We're clearly now seeing a path to the end of printed daily newspapers — a trend that is escalating much faster than we had anticipated," center director Jeffrey I. Cole said in a press release. He believes the only newspapers that survive will be those that "move decisively to the Web."

"The key to newspapers' success," he added, "will be making bold moves entirely into the digital realm and building business models that allow them to thrive online."

Of course, no one has yet come up with such a business model, and the survey does not suggest one is imminent. Internet users expressed strongly negative views about online advertising: 52 percent said they never click on Web advertisements, while only 6 percent report they do so sometimes or often. Sixty-one percent said they never buy products they learned about from a Web advertisement.

Given this antipathy, Internet users were asked whether they would prefer paying for advertiser-free content or using advertiser-supported free content. The results were surprisingly close, with 51 percent saying they favored the free-with-ads model.

Does that mean a substantial number of readers would be willing to pay for content if it meant not dealing with pop-up ads and other revenue-generating annoyances? It's hard to say, but that might be a promising direction for news organizations to explore.

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