‘State of News Media’ Documents Decline, Spots 6 Trends for Reinvention

The Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with its annual "State of the News Media" report, chronicling three of the four most important aspects of news today: what's being lost, what's currently replacing it and how audiences are faring in the meantime.

The study paints a picture of mainstream media beset by crumbling business models, journalism start-ups still stumbling in their efforts to generate significant original content, and audiences left to bumble along as best they can, trying to make sense of a confusing media landscape.

All true and worthy of the invaluable benchmarking the industry has come to rely on PEJ to provide.

The report, seventh in PEJ's series of annual check-ups on the world of news, sheds less light on journalism's critically important -- but tougher to quantify -- fourth dimension: the chaotic reinvention of the forms of news that might come next.

In its look at established media, the study found 5,900 newspaper jobs lost in 2009 (in addition to a similar number in 2008), reducing newsroom employment at newspapers since 2001 by a third. My Poynter colleague, Rick Edmonds, co-authored the study's 40-page newspaper report, which he describes in "Insubstantial Newspaper Requires Reinvestment as Revenue Returns."

The report tracks losses on other publishing platforms as well, including 450 jobs at local TV news operations. Interestingly, those job cuts were accompanied by a 10 percent increase in the average amount of local news produced per station each day. That means fewer people producing more news, hardly an equation for increased quality.

Audiences for news declined on all platforms except digital and cable, the study reports, with the bulk of the online traffic for news attracted by the biggest operations: "Of the 4,600 (news and information) sites, the top 7 percent collect 80 percent of the traffic. And the top 20 sites attract the majority of that (most of them legacy media)."

PEJ reports big declines in the revenue streams supporting news, including a 26 percent decline in advertising for newspapers; a 22 percent drop in local TV ad revenue (triple the loss suffered in 2008), an 8 percent drop in TV advertising, and 5 percent in online ads, with online news sites likely hit harder.

The study finds little promise in research into user willingness to pay for content, prompting PEJ to reiterate a conclusion from last year's report: sustaining news will require a hybrid of revenue streams, some of them perhaps not yet invented.
PEJ's examination of what's replacing legacy media draws on the work of university research tracking the evolution of citizen media. Among the findings: "the citizen news sites (included in the research) offered less news, fewer updates and were less open to interaction with readers than traditional news Web sites."

Despite its comprehensive review of citizen media, the study mostly underlines the need for reinvention.

Pointing us in the direction of reinvention with the lead of its overview -- "What now?" -- PEJ's analysis highlights six major trends that should serve as signposts for both commercial and editorial innovation:
  • "As we learn more about both Web economics and consumer behavior, the unbunding of news seems increasingly central to journalism's future." The trick will be designing revenue models to replace such historic scenarios as newspapers making enough money on display and classified advertising to support news in the public interest that generates little or no revenue on its own. Interesting example from last week: The New York Times' decision to unbundle its Book Review from e-reader editions of its Sunday paper, much as the paper has done for years with print editions of the Book Review.

  • "The future of new and old media are more tied together than some may think." The report documents how little original new content is being generated by journalism start-ups, but recommends various "pro-am" partnerships as one way of filling some of the gap created by the failure of new outfits to replace enough of the diminished reporting of the stripped-down mainstream. Especially encouraging are the sort of alliances with local bloggers launched by the Miami Herald, Seattle Times and others described in my recent Shorenstein paper [PDF, partnerships section begins on p. 37].

  • "The notion that the news media are shrinking is mistaken." What is shrinking, though, is original reporting, and the growth of commentary and opinion online is not providing users with enough of the independently-reported information they need to make good decisions about civic life. Digital media start-ups continue to rely on legacy news organizations for expensive, hard-to-get reporting, but those organizations are producing less and less of such content as they continue to trim their ranks. All of which pinpoints what is perhaps journalism's most critical funding question: Who will pay for public interest news that provides the fodder for so much of the discussion and argument growing so swiftly online?

  • "Technology is further shifting power to newsmakers, and the newest way is through their ability to control the initial account of events." PEJ laid some of the groundwork for this assertion with its January analysis of the news ecosystem in Baltimore. Critics said the study failed to capture the full range of new media invention in Baltimore, but it did establish the disturbing trend of news organizations "focusing more time on disseminating information and somewhat less on gathering it" -- a phenomenon that diminishes journalists' capacity to provide independent assessment of newsmakers' claims.

  • "The ranks of self-interested information providers are now growing rapidly and news organizations must define their relationship to them." Some of the collaboration of news organizations with such "self-interested information providers" is working, some less so, but foundation-funded news services and other start-ups (created by those with a stake in the content) will likely become an increasingly important source of public interest news. It's an area that cries out for innovation, not only in terms of revenue models but in the sort of guiding principles that could help ensure the reliability of the information and reporting.

  • "When it comes to audience numbers online, traditional media content still prevails, which means the cutbacks in old media heavily impact what the public is learning through the new." As much as news-related start-ups are multiplying online and audiences are growing, most of the audience continues to rely on traditional media, one way or another, for news. And the reporting provided by those organizations is in steady decline. "In short," the study concludes, "the cutbacks in old media are drastically affecting not only traditional media but still significantly impact online content as well."
The report says the biggest issue within news organizations is "how much revenue lost in the recession the industry will regain as the economy improves," adding:
"Whatever the answers, the future of news ultimately rests on more long-term concerns: What are the prospects for alternative journalism organizations that are forming around the country? Will traditional media adapt and innovate amid continuing pressures to thin their ranks?"
The future of news will be partly shaped by start-ups already beginning to replace mainstream media, but much of it will be determined by experimentation that's just getting started and probably not ready for the sort of assessment PEJ provides. I'm thinking especially of some of the work-in-progress I glimpsed last week at a couple of stops: the e-reader conference exploring the potential for news on such platforms as the iPad, and the WeMedia gathering exploring entrepreneurial media in many forms.
Meanwhile, I continue to wonder: just what sort of commercial and editorial reinvention will it take to close the gap between the shrinking capacity of legacy news operations to deliver the news we need and the still halting initiatives of start-ups hoping to take their place?
  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed Poynter.org for 10 years.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon