April 29, 2015

top-digital-native-300The Pew Research Center’s 12th annual State of the News Media report offers a fresh ranking of the most visited news sites that originated online, with Huffington Post leading the pack and BuzzFeed not far behind.

Also in the top 10 are Bleacher Report, Mashable, Slate, Vice, Gawker and Vox. For nine of the 10 sites, mobile share of traffic now outstrips desktop.  The one exception was CNET.com. Among the broader group of Top 50, 39 now get more traffic to their site and related apps from mobile than desktop.

The ranking of “Top Digital-Native News Entities” are measured by comScore’s count of unique visitors in January 2015.  That methodology excludes legacy-related platforms like CNN Network and the Yahoo-ABC combined site, still first among all sites in traffic.

The report, out this morning, has been pared down to a baker’s dozen “fact sheets” with few sweeping conclusions about industry trends.

The new format, director of journalism research Amy Mitchell said in a phone interview aims “to make key data around the industry” available in manageable bundles.  Pew’s bigger projects on topics like news consumer preferences or evolving local news ecosystems now come out as they are finished over the course of the year.

Doing both in one huge document, Mitchell said, “we found we were trying to cram stuff in” resulting in a potentially confusing mix.

The report, like its predecessors, does indicate which segments of the industry performed strongly over the last year and which are declining.  Some findings of note:

  • Local TV showed small audience increases in both evening (3 percent) and morning (2 percent) news broadcasts in 2014 with bigger growth for early morning and midday segments.
  • Local TV also experienced a 7 percent increase in ad revenues to $19.4 billion, pulling roughly even with the newspaper industry.  It added another $5 billion in retransmission fees, though that is less than the roughly $11 billion newspapers get from circulation.
  • Network news, after a long decline over recent decades, saw a second straight year of audience growth — 3 percent in the evening and 2 percent in the morning.  Average evening news viewership is now 24 million.
  • Cable news prime-time viewership, by contrast was down 8 percent.  Fox News fared the best of the three channels down just 1 percent.  The group’s total day viewership is far smaller than the networks’ just 1.8 million.
  • Digital ad revenue grew to just over $50 billion, an 18 percent increase.
  • The newspaper sector continues its decline.  Pew estimates both daily and Sunday circulation were down 3 percent in 2014.  And the report estimates advertising decline (print and digital together) at 4 percent.
  • The news magazine segment was able to halt a sharp newsstand sales decline in recent years. Similarly most of the titles kept circulation from subscriptions close to even with discounts and special offers.
  • Audio continues its combination of growth and varied formats. Podcasting rated its own fact sheet for the first time. NPR’s podcast downloads were up 41 percent for the year. Online radio listening in cars is becoming increasingly common with 35 percent of adults saying they have done so, compared to just 21 percent in 2013 and 6 percent in 2010.

The report noted some disappointments.  “For legacy news outlets, significant digital revenues remain largely on the wish list,” Pew found.  There also was some shakeout on the digital side with tech site Gigaom going out of business and Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media closing The Racket before it published a single story.

But the year also saw robust growth for Vice News, Vox.com, Politico and Atlantic Media’s Quartz.

Pew is committed to updating the fact sheets, Mitchell said, but has not decided whether to do that all at once annually or as relevant news data is released.  In the newspaper segment, for example, the Newspaper Association of America’s estimate of industry-wide revenues is due within weeks and the American Society of News Editors’ annual newsroom census later this summer.

I asked Mitchell if the boom in social media as a way of receiving news resists the kind of measurement Pew has done for more established sectors. “Yes and no,” she said.  News outlets have fairly exact measure of referral from Facebook and others, “but there is still a lot of unpacking to do” to get at all dimensions of the phenomenon.

The last paragraph of her overview/introduction sounds a similar note:

Overall, digital news entrants and experimentation, whether from longtime providers or new, are on the one hand now so numerous and varied that they are difficult to keep track of. On the other hand, the pace of technological evolution and the multiplicity of choices – from platforms to devices to pathways – show no sign of slowing down. With each new pathway or platform, the old ones continue to be used, posing a nearly unattainable challenge to an industry in financial difficulty. And if news in the social space is more incidental and driven to a large degree by friends and algorithms, then gaining a foothold there may be even more elusive – or at least less in the industry’s own hands – than a secure financial model.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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