I never expect to read optimistic facts and figures about the state of the North American media. That’s why I was surprised by some of the findings of the Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2011” report. Not all was gloomy, though a good deal of it was, depending on the form of media you turn to for news. But, as Johnny Mercer wrote in his popular 1944 tune, let’s “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”
In 2010, the state of the news media in the U.S. actually improved over 2009. Only newspapers experienced advertising revenue declines. All other forms of media reported gains. While our Reporting 2.0 class has discussed the seemingly sombre future faced by newspapers, due to loss of revenue, the report found that “23% of Americans said they would pay $5 a month for an online version of their local paper if the print version were to perish.” Yet by the end of 2010, just three dozen newspapers had begun charging for some of their online content and the only ones successfully doing so for most of their content online were “those selling financial information to elite audiences” (Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg).
While nearly one quarter of Americans may be willing to pay for an online version of their newspapers, more people are already getting their news online. Forty-six percent report that they read online news at least three times per week, compared to forty percent who get their news from newspapers. Only television news is more popular than internet, with fifty percent of Americans using that media.
In his 2006 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Charles Carroll stated that about 80 percent of news on the internet comes from newspapers. This might lead a person to believe that online news agencies don’t do much original reporting, and to wonder: What happens to news coverage when there are no more newspapers to gather stories from?
This brings me to the most surprising thing I learned from the “State of the News Media 2011” report. It’s also pretty optimistic. “Online news hires may have matched newspaper cuts for the first time.”
Yes, you read it right. National news organisations that are online-only started to undertake a significant amount of original reporting in 2010. “AOL hired nearly 1,000 employees…Bloomberg Government expects to number 150 journalists and analysts by the end of 2011…and Yahoo added several dozen reporters across news, sports and finance.” The study estimates that between 1,000 and 1,500 newspaper journalists’ jobs were cut in 2010.
There’s another, less positive, change underway affecting the nature of the news business. The report noted that as online news consumption surpasses newspapers a “more fundamental challenge to journalism” has become clear: The news industry has lost control of its future.
There’s an increasing trend toward using mobile devices to receive news. The companies making those devices and distributing news on them are in control of the data about news audiences. And it’s that data that’s required to garner advertising dollars.
“In a world where consumers decide what news they want and how they want to get it, the future belongs to those who understand the audience best, and who can leverage that knowledge with advertisers,” said the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism Director Tom Rosenstiel. “Increasingly that knowledge exists outside of news companies.”
This could deal the final blow to fledgling newspapers that offer content digitally. What it means for online-only news organisations remains to be seen. But without a strong base of advertising revenue, news organisations must rely on subscription dollars. While a good percentage of people say they’re willing to pay for digital news, most currently don’t. Can independent media thrive in the midst of these changes in the news business, or is an era emerging where the news that’s reported is controlled by companies like Apple and Google—those who understand the audience best?