First, PEJ starts by asking the questions:
If someday we have a world without journalists, or at least without editors, what would the news agenda look like? How would citizens make up a front page differently than professional news people?
Curious hypotheticals indeed. Kind of like "what would the world be like without religion?" or "what if I'd never been born?" Even Dan Gillmor notes that these might be the wrong questions...
Dan also notes
We are not heading to a world with no editors. A portion of the editorial role, at least the part of the editorial role that involves picking stories, is moving to community-driven sites. Digg, Reddit and others in the PEJ survey are crude approximations, however, of what is coming.
Rather, a better characterization might be that these are online socializing experiments revolving around the gathering and sharing of news stories that are relevant to a particular group of people in a particular period in time
All are relative to a time and place because all are linking together a particular demographic around social interaction. Social mores change and blow the bejebus out of social networks. Can anyone say Friendster??
James Robertson said in his criticism of Nick Carr's blistering commentary that Carr "misses the point on social sites like Digg, Reddit..." Yet I would venture that it's not Carr that misses the point, but the PEJ study that misses--and misinterprets--the point of these sites. And for the same reason that Robertson points out: these social news sites aren't meant to point people to the stories of the moment. People can find those already. People who use social news are often looking for something different--and what that is relates to their particular interests (mostly tech-oriented.)
If someone managed to put together a social news site based on the latest in celebrity gossip, you'd find not just a vastly different community than on Digg and Reddit, but you'd also find that the #1 stories of the day are vastly different (hmmm..maybe this is something we can demonstrate w/ Technorati's Topics feature???)
All in all, the PEJ study should be taken with a hefty grain of salt: its focuses on a small snapshot in time (June 24 to June 29, 2007) and on a culturally and socially relative phenomenon and uses the wrong terminology to describe the phenomenon. Sites like Digg, Reddit,etc. are not "user-news" sites. The "users" aren't creating content on those sites, but are pointing to content in other places. The more accurate term is "social news" sites. And because they are "social," their communities revolve around a particular affinity, not on geography or general news--hence their narrow focus. Further, assumptions should not be made about people who use these sites, since the amount and types of news consumed by any individual who frequents these sites in all probability varies from participant to participant.
If you project too much, you can get in trouble
Perahps the better lessons on the phenomenon--ones that are relavent right now--can be found in the changes coming to Netscape's Digg-like social news experiment....at least Netscape can admit when something didn't work quite so well, and shift strategies. I'm not sure if most other corporate owned news outlets could do the same.
update Scott Karp makes a similar point only with graphs!