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For Newspapers, Good News and Bad News

More people are spending more time reading newspapers - but they're doing it online and without paying. That's the highlight of a rich survey result just released by USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

The annual survey, conducted by Annenberg School's Center for the Digital Future, offers a fascinating look at the changing habits of Internet users in America. It provides robust data on what people do online - whether they shop or pay bill - as well as how their children behave based on the availability of connectivity at home.

But of most interest to this space, as well as the researchers, is the glimpse of the future for the newspaper business. In short, there is a future, just not in print.

Jeffrey Cole, the director of the center, made a bold prediction:

"We're clearly now seeing a path to the end of the printed daily newspapers -- a trend that is escalating much faster than we had anticipated. The decline of newspapers is happening at a pace they never could have anticipated. Their cushion is gone, and only those papers that can move decisively to the Web will survive."

According to the survey, Internet users in 2008 spent 53 minutes per week reading online newspapers, a 28 percent increase over a year ago. Heavy users spent nearly two hours online reading papers' web sites each week. But as a result, 22 percent of the users said they stopped paying for a subscription because they could read the same content online for free.

There is one more piece of disconcerting news for newspapers and other media outlets. While people do flock to these web sites for information, they don't necessarily believe everything in it. According to the survey: Faith in news pages posted by established media (such as nytimes.com and cnn.com) decreased, and is now at the lowest level yet reported in the Digital Future studies that began in 2000.

For more on the survey, you can read the press release and the highlights. If you wish to get all of the 191-page report - be ready to drop 500 bucks - it's available here.