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Old newspaper boxes from the now defunct Seattle P-I.

The news business has been undergoing radical shifts and changes over the past 10 years, brought on by advances in new technologies. And now a historic milestone has occurred. More people read their news online than in physical newspapers, according to a study released today by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

For old newspaper hacks like us, this is a significant development. But it’s hardly surprising. And we’re kind of left wondering, what took so long? (After all, the last time I bought a physical newspaper was at Christmas time when my folks were in town. It had been so long, I actually had forgotten how much the paper cost).

According to the Pew study, 46 percent of survey respondents now say they get their news online at least three times a week. That compares to 40 percent for newspapers.

It gets even worse for the newspaper business. For the first time, more money was spent on online advertising than on newspaper advertising. (Granted, newspapers are collecting some of that online revenue, about $3 billion annually.  But an even larger chunk is going to technology players like Google, Facebook and Yahoo).

Here’s more from the report:

“In a media world where consumers decide what news they want to get and how they want to get it, the future will belong to those who understand the public’s changing behavior and can target content and advertising to snugly fit the interests of each user. That knowledge — and the expertise in gathering it — increasingly resides with technology companies outside journalism.”

Online advertising grew 13.9 percent to $25.8 billion in 2010, while newspaper revenue declined 6.4 percent. Newspapers were the only major media sector to see ad revenue declines, according to the report.

The Seattle area has taken a hit as a result of the declines, with one of the two daily newspapers (The Seattle P-I) shutting down print operations two years ago this month. It now exists as an online-only operation. (Full disclosure: Todd Bishop and I are former P-I reporters).

Nationally, newsroom staffs across America are 30 percent smaller than they were in 2000.

The other big trend is mobile. Forty seven percent of Americans now get some news on a mobile device, and as of January 2001 seven percent of respondents owned an electronic tablet computer (iPad, Kindle, etc).

John Cook is co-founder of GeekWire, a technology news site based in Seattle. Follow on Twitter: @geekwirenews.

[Flickr photo via Kurt Schlosser]

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