Expert Commentary

State of the news media 2013: Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism

2013 report from the Pew Research Center's Project on Excellence in Journalism on troubling trends in the news industry, particularly the relationship between declining quality and negative consumer reaction.

The “State of the News Media 2013” report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism spotlights the dynamics of a kind of vicious cycle now taking place because of deep business problems in the news industry. As news outlets have slashed staff and reduced the quantity and quality of coverage, the report suggests, many consumers have responded negatively: “Nearly one-third — 31% — of people say they have deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to, according to [a] survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults in early 2013.” About half of all people surveyed said news stories are not as thorough as they were previously. Of the consumers who reported abandoning certain news outlets, 61% said the decision was based on issues of quality, while 24% said there were not enough stories.

For those concerned about the impact of these trends on American democracy, Pew offers more troubling evidence as revealed through coverage of the 2012 election, when reporters played a diminished role in the information ecosystem and increasingly seemed to be acting as “megaphones” for the campaigns, rather than interpreters of claims. Still, as Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias points out, news consumers have, in theory, greater options for acquiring information in the digital age than they may have ever had. But questions remain about the increasing political polarization of many outlets, as well as the effects of a more fragmented news media that can seldom convene broad public discussion around common sets of facts. Indeed, another interpretation of the Pew report’s main finding, from UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman, is that ideological opposition to the traditional media — particularly among conservatives and males — is actually a chief driver of the recent trends, and the perceived decline in quality is not the primary reason for large numbers of people abandoning news outlets.

The full Pew report, based on original survey research and other reliable industry-related findings, contains snapshots of different areas within the news business. Highlights include:

  • Newspaper ad revenue is now down 60% compared to a decade ago. The number of U.S. news jobs is likely now below 40,000, compared to the historic high of 56,900 in 1989, a 30% decrease overall. However, “after years of decline, total daily circulation in 2012 stayed even with 2011, falling only 0.2%, according to an estimate by Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute. Much of this is tied to new digital pay plans, with the number of newspapers implementing them now up to 450, more than double a year ago.”
  • According to data from the Newspaper Association of America, “in 2012, for every $16 in print ad revenue lost, only $1 in digital ad revenue was gained. That was even worse than the $10-to-$1 ratio in 2011.”
  • Although overall magazine subscriptions were relatively stable, “all of the major news magazines saw declining audiences in 2012. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, sales of newsstand copies, the measure most accepted by the industry, plummeted 16% on average for the news magazines, roughly two times the 8.2% decline in newsstand sales that the magazine industry suffered over all.” Across a sample of six magazines, levels of print advertising revenue fell 10%.
  • The overall audience for local television news saw a “steep decline,” dropping 6.5% over the period 2011-2012. This comes despite putting more segments on the air, particularly in the morning time slots. However, because of the huge amount of election-related advertising, revenues actually grew in 2012. Further, the “median full-time TV news staff hit an all-time record of 32 employees in 2011, an increase of more than 4% from the year before,” and many local television stations said they planned to increase hiring.
  • In terms of cable news, “the format of daytime cable news has evolved over the last five years to look more like prime-time talk programming. Interview segments are now as prominent in daytime cable as they are in prime time….A separate analysis of cable in late 2012 finds that, over all, commentary and opinion are far more prevalent on the air (63% of the airtime) than straight news reporting (37%). CNN is the only channel to offer more reporting (54%) than opinion (46%), though by a small margin.”
  • “In 2012, total [online] traffic to the top 25 news sites increased 7.2%, according to comScore. And according to Pew Research data, 39% of respondents got news online or from a mobile device ‘yesterday,’ up from 34% in 2010, when the survey was last conducted.”
  • About 15% of people now say they get most of their news through social media; that figure is about 25% among those ages 18-25. However, 72% of people over all say they get most of their news by talking with family and friends. The data suggest “the growth of electronic communication — via email and, to an even greater extent, social networking — may make it easier and more likely for people to follow up on news in the future.”
  • The emerging mobile market offers one potential bright spot, as many people appear to be consuming more news because of Internet-enabled devices. This offers opportunities for the news business: “One piece of [the mobile] market that news can exploit is sponsorship advertising, and in 2012, so-called native advertising (a type of sponsorship ad) made headlines. Though it remains small in dollars, the category’s growth rate is second only to that of video: sponsorship ads rose 38.9%, to $1.56 billion; that followed a jump of 56.1% in 2011. Traditional publications such as The Atlantic and Forbes, as well as digital publications BuzzFeed and Gawker, have relied heavily on native ads to quickly build digital ad revenues, and their use is expected to spread.”

The 2013 Pew report offers the following chart to illustrate historical changes in how Americans are getting their news:


For further insights into the future of business models in journalism, see the analysis of Ken Doctor at Nieman Journalism Lab and Felix Salmon at Reuters.

Tags: social media, technology, mobile tech

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