Why do networks still do news?
By several measures, the state of the American news media improved in 2010.
After two dreadful years, most sectors of the industry saw revenue begin to recover. With some notable exceptions, cutbacks in newsrooms eased. And while still more talk than action, some experiments with new revenue models began to show signs of blossoming.
Among the major sectors, only newspapers suffered continued revenue declines last year — an unmistakable sign that the structural economic problems facing newspapers are more severe than those of other media. When the final tallies are in, we estimate 1,000 to 1,500 more newsroom jobs will have been lost — meaning newspaper newsrooms are 30% smaller than in 2000.
Beneath all this, however, a more fundamental challenge to journalism became clearer in the last year. The biggest issue ahead may not be lack of audience or even lack of new revenue experiments. It may be that in the digital realm the news industry is no longer in control of its own destiny.
News organizations — old and new — still produce most of the content audiences consume. But each technological advance has added a new layer of complexity — and a new set of players — in connecting that content to consumers and advertisers.
In the digital space, the organizations that produce the news increasingly rely on independent networks to sell their ads. They depend on aggregators (such as Google) and social networks (such as Facebook) to bring them a substantial portion of their audience. And now, as news consumption becomes more mobile, news companies must follow the rules of device makers (such as Apple) and software developers (Google again) to deliver their content. Each new platform often requires a new software program. And the new players take a share of the revenue and in many cases also control the audience data.
Those data may be the most important commodity of all. 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.
In the 20th century, the news media thrived by being the intermediary others needed to reach customers. In the 21st, increasingly there is a new intermediary: Software programmers, content aggregators and device makers control access to the public. The news industry, late to adapt and culturally more tied to content creation than engineering, finds itself more a follower than a leader in shaping its business.
Meanwhile, the pace of change continues to accelerate. Mobile has already become an important factor in news. A new survey released with this year’s report, produced with the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in association with the Knight Foundation, finds that nearly half of all Americans (47%) now get some form of local news on a mobile device. What they turn to most there is news that serves immediate needs — weather, information about restaurants and other local businesses, and traffic. And the move to mobile is only likely to grow. By January 2011, 7% of Americans reported owning some kind of electronic tablet. That was nearly double the number just four months earlier.
The migration to the web also continued to gather speed. In 2010, every news platform saw audiences either stall or decline — except for the internet. Cable news, one of the growth sectors of the last decade, is now shrinking, too. For the first time in at least a dozen years, the median audience declined at all three cable news channels.
For the first time, too, more people said they got news from the web than newspapers. The internet now trails only television among American adults as a destination for news, and the trend line shows the gap closing. Financially the tipping point also has come. When the final tally is in, online ad revenue in 2010 is projected to surpass print newspaper ad revenue for the first time. The problem for news is that by far the largest share of that online ad revenue goes to non-news sources, particularly to aggregators.
In the past, much of the experimentation in new journalism occurred locally, often financed by charitable grants, usually at small scale. Larger national online-only news organizations focused more on aggregation than original reporting. In 2010, however, some of the biggest new media institutions began to develop original newsgathering in a significant way. Yahoo! added several dozen reporters across news, sports and finance. AOL had 900 journalists, 500 of them at its local Patch news operation. By the end of 2011, Bloomberg expects to have 150 journalists and analysts for its new Washington operation, Bloomberg Government. News Corp. has hired from 100 to 150, depending on the press reports, for its new tablet newspaper, The Daily, though not all may be journalists. Together these hires come close to matching the jobs that we estimate were lost in newspapers in 2010, the first time we have seen this kind of substitution.
A report in this year’s study also finds that new community media sites are beginning to put as much energy into securing new revenue streams — and refining audiences to do so — as creating content. Many also say they are doing more to curate user content.
Traditional newsrooms, meanwhile, are different places than they were before the recession. They are smaller, their aspirations have narrowed and their journalists are stretched thinner. But their leaders also say they are more adaptive, younger and more engaged in multimedia presentation, aggregation, blogging and user content. In some ways, new media and old, slowly and sometimes grudgingly, are coming to resemble each other.
The result is a news ecology full of experimentation and excitement, but also one that is uneven, has uncertain financial underpinning and some clear holes in coverage. Even in Seattle, one of the most vibrant places for new media, “some vitally important stories are less likely to be covered,” said Diane Douglas who runs a local civic group and considers the decentralization of media voices a healthy change. “It’s very frightening to think of those gaps and all the more insidious because you don’t know what you don’t know.” Some also worry that with lower pay, more demands for speed, less training, and more volunteer work, there is a general devaluing and even what scholar Robert Picard has called a “de-skilling” of the profession.
Among the features in this, the eighth edition of the State of the News Media produced by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, is a report on how American newspapers fare relative to those in other countries, two reports on the status of community media, a survey on mobile and paid content in local news, and a report on African American media. The chapters this year have also been reorganized and streamlined: each is made up now of a Summary Essay and a longer, separate Data Section where all the statistical information is more easily searchable and interactive.
Each year, this report also identifies key trends. In addition to the growing significance of third-party players in shaping the future of news, six stand out entering 2011:
- The news industry is turning to executives from outside. The trend has a scattered history. The complex revenue equation of news — that it was better to serve the audience even to the irritation of advertisers that paid most of the bills — tended to trip up outsiders. It spelled the end, for instance, of Mark Willes at Times Mirror when he let advertisers dictate content. With the old revenue model broken, more companies are again looking to outsiders for leadership. One reason is new owners. Seven of the top 25 newspapers in America are now owned by hedge funds, which had virtually no role a few years ago. The age of publicly traded newspaper companies is winding down. And some of the new executives are blunt in their assessments. John Paton, the new head of Journal Register newspapers told a trade group in December: “We have had nearly 15 years to figure out the web and, as an industry, we newspaper people are no good at it.” A question is how much time these private equity owners will give struggling news operations to turn around. One of these publishers told PEJ privately that he believed he had two years.
- Less progress has been made charging for news than predicted, but there are some signs of willingness to pay. The leading study on the subject finds that so far only about three dozen newspapers have moved to some kind of paid content on their websites. Of those, only 1% of users opted to pay. And some papers that moved large portions of content to subscription gave up the effort. A new survey released for this report suggests that under certain circumstances the prospects for charging for content could improve. If their local newspaper would otherwise perish, 23% of Americans said they would pay $5 a month for an online version. To date, however, even among early adopters, only 10% of those who have downloaded local news apps paid for them (this doesn’t include apps for non-local news or other content). At the moment, the only news producers successfully charging for most of their content online are those selling financial information to elite audiences — the Financial Times is one, the Wall Street Journal is another, Bloomberg is a third — all operations aimed at professional audiences, which means they are not a model that will work for general interest news.
- If anything, the metrics of online news have become more confused, not less. Many believe that the economics of the web, and particularly online news, cannot really progress until the industry settles on how to measure audience. There is no consensus on what is the most useful measure of online traffic. Different rating agencies do not even agree on how to define a “unique visitor.” Does that denote different people or does the same person visiting a site from different computers get counted more than once? The numbers from one top rating agency, comScore, are in some cases double and even triple those of another, Nielsen. More audience research data exist about each user than ever before. Yet in addition to confusion about what it means, it is almost impossible get a full sense of consumer behavior — across sites, platforms, and devices. That leaves potential advertisers at a loss about how to connect the dots. In March 2011, three advertising trade groups, supported by other media associations, announced an initiative to improve and standardize confusing digital media metrics called Making Measurement Make Sense, but the task will not be easy.
- Local news remains the vast untapped territory. Most traditional American media — and much of U.S. ad revenue — are local. The dynamics of that market online are still largely undefined. The potential, though, is clear. Already 40% of all online ad spending is local, up from 30% just a year earlier. But the market at the local level is different than nationally and requires different strategies, both in content creation and economics. Unlike national, at the local level, display advertising — the kind that news organizations rely on — is bigger than search, market researchers estimate. And the greatest local growth area last year was in highly targeted display ads that many innovators see as key to the future. Even Google, the king of search, sees display as “our next big business,” as Eric Schmidt, its CEO, told the New York Times in September.
- The nature of local news content is also in many ways undefined. While local has been the area of greatest ferment for nonprofit startups, no one has yet cracked the code for how to produce local news effectively at a sustainable level. The first major concept in more traditional venues, the push toward so-called “hyperlocalism,” proved ill-conceived, expensive and insufficiently supported by ads. Yahoo!’s four-year old local news and advertising consortium has shown some success for certain participants but less for others. There are some prominent local news aggregators such as Topix and Examiner.com, and now AOL has entered the field with local reporting through Patch. Whether national networks will overtake small local startups or local app networks will mix news with a variety of other local information, the terrain here remains in flux.
- The new conventional wisdom is that the economic model for news will be made up of many smaller and more complex revenue sources than before. The old news economic model was fairly simple. Broadcast television depended on advertising. Newspapers depended on circulation revenue and a few basic advertising categories. Cable was split — half from advertising and half from cable subscription fees. Online, most believe there will be many different kinds of revenue. This is because no one revenue source looks large enough and because money is divided among so many players. In the biggest new revenue experiment of 2010, the discount sales coupon business led by Groupon, revenue can be split three ways when newspapers are involved. On the iPad, Apple gets 30% of the subscription revenue and owns the audience data. On the Android system, Google takes 10%. News companies are trying to push back. One new effort involves online publishers starting their own ad exchanges, rather than having middlemen do it for them. NBC, CBS and Forbes are among those launching their own, tired of sharing revenue and having third parties take their audience data.
- The bailout of the car industry helped with the media’s modest recovery in 2010. One overlooked dimension in the year past: A key source of renewed revenue in news in 2010 was the recovery in the car industry, aided by the decision to lend federal money to save U.S. carmakers. Auto advertising jumped 77% in local television, 22% in radio and 17% in magazines. The other benefactor of the news industry, say experts, was the U.S. Supreme Court: Its Citizens United decision allowing corporations and unions to buy political ads for candidates helped boost political advertising spent on local television to an estimated $2.2 billion, a new high for a midterm campaign year.