Three 24-hour cable news channels, newspapers available online everywhere via wi-fi, a billion blogs parsing the news…and apparently we’re less informed now than we were in 1989.

Since the late 1980s, the emergence of 24-hour cable news as a dominant news source and the explosive growth of the internet have led to major changes in the American public’s news habits. But a new nationwide survey finds that the coaxial and digital revolutions and attendant changes in news audience behaviors have had little impact on how much Americans know about national and international affairs.

FigureOn average, today’s citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago.

In 1989, for example, 74% could come up with Dan Quayle’s name when asked who the vice president is. Today, somewhat fewer (69%) are able to recall Dick Cheney. However, more Americans now know that the chief justice of the Supreme Court is generally considered a conservative and that Democrats control Congress than knew these things in 1989. Some of the largest knowledge differences between the two time periods may reflect differences in the amount of press coverage of a particular issue or public figure at the time the surveys were taken. But taken as a whole the findings suggest little change in overall levels of public knowledge.

What I have observed since I started blogging back in 2001 is that some people are far more informed than they probably would have been without blogs, the net, etc, but most aren’t. So you have hyperinformed people who know the minutiae of the daily news, but they’re still a tiny minority. And among the hyperinformed, news consumption today is more tailored to individual interests than it could have been 20 years ago. There’s some confirmation of this in the survey:

The survey provides further evidence that changing news formats are not having a great deal of impact on how much the public knows about national and international affairs. The polling does find the expected correlation between how much citizens know and how avidly they watch, read, or listen to news reports. The most knowledgeable third of the public is four times more likely than the least knowledgeable third to say they enjoy keeping up with the news “a lot.”

Basically, you can’t make people get interested in the news if they’re not interested. And if Hollywood gossip is all they care about, that’s all the news they’ll seek out. Twas always thus. Now it’s just easier to find the news you want and avoid the rest. For those who are interested in hard news, world affairs and that sort of thing, it’s information overload.

Exit question: Does this mean that hard news blogging is a waste of time, or that there’s a huge audience out there just waiting to be found?