Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism published "The State of the News Media 2013," a study that concluded the U.S. has a “news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones, or to question information put into its hands.” Overall, “Online was the only category of news that showed growth.” I'd say that’s a fairly dreary and pessimistic outlook, as did many of the media outlets reporting the results of the study. Thankfully, there were actually some bright spots in the report that highlighted some of the evolutionary changes occurring. But, Matthew Yglesias, writing in Slate, says, “Ignore the doomsayers: The news-reading public has never had more and better information at their fingertips.”
Digital developments: The report noted, not surprisingly, that the “clearest pattern of news audience growth in 2012 came on digital platforms, and the proliferation of digital devices in peoples’ lives seemed to be a big part of the reason.” According to the data, “39% of respondents got news online or from a mobile device ‘yesterday,’ up from 34% in 2010, when the survey was last conducted.”
Audience: Losses occurred in network TV audiences (-1.9%), local TV (-6.5%), newspapers (but only -0.2%), and magazines (-0.1). Audio is popular and accessible.
Economics: “Financially, the two legacy print platforms—newspapers and magazines—continued to see revenue declines in 2012, while gains in television mask longer-term challenges. And digital experienced weaker gains than in 2011.”
News Investment: The main message for everything from newsroom budgets to staffing to journalistic initiatives remains one of “resource tightening that goes along with smaller budgets.” More disturbing is the finding that “the public is noticing an impact on the content—and is beginning to abandon certain news outlets. Nearly a third (31%) of U.S. adults have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to receiving. And respondents seem to be noticing erosion in quality of coverage even more than diminishing quantity. Fully 61% said they noticed that stories were less complete compared with 24% who said they noticed fewer stories over all.” [Ed. Italics added for emphasis.]
Ownership: “The year 2012 was one of consolidation in the TV sector, impacting local, network and cable television news. And a number of newspapers and magazines changed hands over the course of the year, though the dollar amounts of those deals tended to be smaller than in years past.”
Drivers of News
The findings on how people hear about news were also interesting. Friends and family are important drivers of news (and the extent to which that happens surprised me). “According to the 2013 survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, nearly three-quarters—72%—say the most common way they hear about news events from family and friends is by talking in person or over the phone. But 15% get most news from family and friends through social media sites. And that rises to nearly a quarter among 18-25 year olds.”
Then, people take the extra step to get more information. Nearly two-thirds of those who get news from family and friends chiefly through conversation “often” or “very often” seek out a news story to learn more. The 22% of respondents who primarily receive news from family and friends electronically seek out news stories at an even higher rate. Fully 77% said they followed up at least somewhat often. Clearly, with the ease of sharing news electronically, the numbers will likely increase greatly as digital and mobile platforms reach ever more people over the coming years. This should be good news for news outlets.
Looking on the Bright Side
Despite the number of media outlets that focused on the pessimistic data in the report, others see opportunities for the news industry amid the challenges.
Mark Glaser and Courtney Lowery Cowgill, writing in the OPA Intelligence Report (The Online Publishers Association), commented that, “[T]here’s a lot of good news in the report for online publishers … The report shows that publishers are evolving and finding new revenue streams. In fact, the report is quite optimistic on that front, saying that newspapers ‘have started to experiment in a big way with a variety of new revenue streams and major organizational changes.’ And pay walls ‘appear to be working not just at the New York Times but also at small and mid-sized papers.’”
Amy Gahran, blogging at the Knight Digital Media Center, notes that, “The report has little to say directly about startup community news and engagement projects—but reading between the lines, it hints at some growing opportunities in the community media landscape.” She says, “This may be an opportune time for new projects to make a splash by focusing on issues where strong, proven community interest exists—but that are getting overlooked by diminishing mainstream news operations. Creative approaches to exploring education, transportation, crime, development and other quality-of-life community issues could easily shine. Again, the key is to choose focused projects that are easy to promote, on topics that community members are already discussing.”
As Yglesias’ points out, “Pew’s overview makes no mention of the Web’s speed, range, and depth, or indeed any mention at all of audience access to information as an important indicator of the health of journalism.” He stressed that for consumers it’s a bonanza. Readers today “have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.” And it’s not just today’s news. “The Internet also brings the enormous back catalog of journalism to life.”
So, is the glass half-full or half-empty?