State of the News Media 2012 shows audience growth for all platforms but newspapers

Project for Excellence in Journalism

Mobile devices may be able to hold together what the Web has rent asunder, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism's ninth annual State of the News Media report in one of its more hopeful moments. Tablet and smartphone users are strengthening their connections to news organizations via apps and mobile pages. More than a quarter of app users have previously paid for news; 81 percent of app users are daily consumers.

But how to make money off these connections is still flummoxing legacy media. The "big five" online players — Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Yahoo — are better positioned to innovate, not least because older news organizations have no choice but to partner with their "frenemies," which offer access to the biggest audiences. (Apple takes a 40 percent cut of ads sold within apps for its products; Google takes 30 percent of Android-app ad sales.)

This is a sprawling report with enough work to fuel a dozen blog posts, so I'm going to stick with some highlights that jumped out at me over a weekend of reading and encourage you to read Rick Edmonds' deep dive on the newspaper chapter and Jeff Sonderman's on mobile and social media, as well as the report itself.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism surveyed Americans to determine where they get their news.

On average, news sites get only 9 percent of their traffic from social media. (That surprised me more than anything, not least because of the sheer number of social media seminars I've been required to attend since 2008.) That traffic is about half of what search gets news sites. Home pages are still very important. "[B]rands still matter," the digital chapter reads. "Reputation remains paramount: of the 25 most popular U.S. news sites, two-thirds are run by traditional news organizations."

Making money on these gold-plated reputations, however, is very difficult. Many news organizations have older audiences that resist the laissez-faire attitude toward privacy that's fueled Google's growth as an advertising company. As the report puts it, "To survive, news must find a way to make its digital advertising more effective — and more lucrative — and the gathering of consumer data is probably the key. Yet news organizations also must worry about violating the trust of their audiences." "Social readers" such as the Washington Post's Facebook tool may be one way forward, but the "frictionless sharing" they offer, which cuts out the need for your friends to actually recommend something they've read, is something many people find very annoying.

Targeted print editions, though, are a bright spot. "The 'super-couponing' craze," the report notes, "finds some eager bargain hunters buying five or six copies of the Sunday paper to maximize their savings." Sunday circulation actually increased at some papers, the report notes. "The Sunday emphasis is a revenue and profit plus, but it also may represent a tipping point of sorts. Sunday advertising now represents 35% to more than 50% of the total at most papers. As papers target Sunday readers, more valuable to advertisers than those on weekdays, they may gradually opt to serve weekday readers with a website report, other digital editions or, in some markets, a smaller-format, free tabloid version."

Local television is growing audience. But not in traditional ways. Early morning newscasts, which are cheap for stations to add, are building audiences, "and not just on the coasts where long commutes force many people to leave home before dawn," says the report. Oprah Winfrey's departure from the afternoon airwaves hasn't dinged stations as much as they'd thought; some have replaced her show with news broadcasts that have held the top rating. And while network TV news has grown audience for its newscasts -- up 4.5 percent over the last year, including viewers 25-54 -- it's still down 54.5 percent from 1980.

>>The report points to the important distinction between ratings and "share": "share outperformed ratings for all key time slots in most sweeps periods. Ratings measure the percentage of households with TVs that are tuned to a particular program. Share measures the percentage of people whose TVs are turned on at a particular time and who are tuned to a specific program. When share goes up more than ratings or stays steady while ratings decline, it means a program has fewer total viewers but a larger percentage of the available audience. So local TV newscasts in the traditional time slots are losing viewers, in part, because people are not watching television at all when the news is on."

>>One study cited found "television stations had enjoyed the highest growth rate in online advertising of any medium....While that success may be mostly due to the fact that they started at a much lower level than other media, it is evidence that some television ownership groups have finally recognized the potential of online sales."

>>Local TV stations' sites are positioned to benefit most from newspapers erecting pay walls. "In 40 of the top 50 markets, newspaper sites outdraw TV sites, but some television stations dominate their markets online, including KSL in Salt Lake City and WRAL in Raleigh, N.C. In Albuquerque, N.M., where the local paper put up a pay wall in 2001, KOAT now reaches twice as many adults online as the newspaper."

>>One big worry for TV: The recession might end. "People in recessionary times watch more television," Jerry Gumbert of the consulting firm AR&D tells the report's authors. “If the reverse is also true," the report states, "the improvement in ratings seen in 2011 may not last." A boom in election-year political advertising, particularly from super PACs, though, may give TV stations the chance to kick that can down a little further down the road.

All platforms grew audience -- except print. "News websites saw the greatest audience growth (17%) for the year. In addition, thanks in part to the drama of events overseas, every sector of television news gained in 2011," the report shows. "Network news audiences grew 5%, the first uptick in a decade. Local news audiences grew in both morning and late evening, the first growth in five years. Cable news audiences also grew, by 1%, after falling the year before; in particular, MSNBC and CNN audiences grew in 2011, while Fox declined. Print newspapers, meanwhile, stood out for their continued decline, which nearly matched the previous year’s 5% drop."

This Graphic from the State of the Media 2012 shows audience growth in digital and broadcast, but declines in print.

Join PEJ Director (and Poynter National Advisory Board Member) Tom Rosenstiel for a webinar on the State of the Media, Wedneday, March 28 at 2 p.m. ET to learn more about what changing audience habits mean for journalists.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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