The big media story of the decade is supposed to be the inexorable movement from print to digital, but there is a ringer attracting both audience and advertising as most news media suffer — cable television.
With a big boost from the presidential election, cable news had a banner year in 2008, growing advertising spending 27 percent in 2008, making online (up 4 percent) look like a 97-pound weakling by comparison. So says the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s sixth edition of its State of the News Media electronic yearbook published today.
As co-author of the newspaper chapter of the report, I’m on the leading edge of a litany of bad news familiar to most Biz Blog readers. But comparison to the fortunes of other media yields some surprises:
- Local television audiences were down 4.5 percent for early evening news in 2008, almost exactly matching newspaper declines (4.6 percent daily and 4.8 percent Sunday) for the most recent reporting period. Advertising revenues were down 7 percent, an astonishingly bad result in an election and Olympics year, which typically produces a big increase over a previous year lacking those revenue boosters.
- News magazines probably have it even worse than newspapers. They too had circulation declines of almost 5 percent and ad revenue declines of 17 percent. U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek are both rolling the dice with big changes in their formats.
- Ethnic media, a growth area through most of the years the report has been published, saw circulation declines for most African American papers, mixed results for Spanish language papers and continued growth for Spanish language television.
- Digital media took its own hit as the recession settled in, with ad growth slowing to a crawl. Newer formats like ads to mobile devices and pre-rolls continued to show healthy growth (59 percent and 33 percent respectively), but they were exceptions. Banner advertising looks less and less like a sustaining income source for newspaper organizations in transition or online-only startups. One ominous indicator for newspapers and local TV: While local advertising is a growing share of the online total, 57 percent of it goes to Google and Yahoo.
Cable news is the exception to the overall negative or mixed picture. Audience grew 38 percent in 2008. That probably cannot be sustained in 2009. But after decades weighed down by heavy initial capital costs, cable has evolved into a highly profitable business. It is sustained by subscriber fees even if advertising is soft. And the package of services (often including high-speed broadband connections and sometimes phone) is one consumers are loathe to cancel.
The report is cautious on prescriptives, dubious, for instance, about micro-payments for online content or a philanthropic rescue of failing newspapers. “The closest thing to a consensus right now,” PEJ executive director Tom Rosenstiel writes, “is that no one source is a likely magic bullet (for newspaper organizations).”
More and more of the news audience, often in a “hunt-and gather” mode, goes to the Internet as a first choice, Rosenstiel writes, but the experimentation with new revenue models to capture that attention has been stalled by the recession.