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Pew study: Newspapers’ hard times continue

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Shocked! Shocked we should be! But the latest report on the State of the Media by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism comes as no surprise. The bottom line: Fewer resources equals compromised journalism. From a PEJ press release summarizing the 2013 report‘s overview:

The report pinpoints multiple signs of shrinking reporting power. For newspapers, estimates for newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put industry employment down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 employees for the first time since 1978. On local television, where audiences were down across every key time slot in 2012, news stories have shrunk in length, and, compared with 2005, coverage of government has been cut in half and sports, weather and traffic now account for 40% of the content. On cable, coverage of live events during the day, which often requires a crew and correspondent, fell 30% from 2007 to 2012, while interview segments were up 31%. And among news magazines, the end of Newsweek’s print edition coincided with another round of staff cuts, and Time, the only general news print magazine left, announced cuts of roughly 5% in early 2013 as a part of broader company layoffs. [For a quick look at the Pew findings, view its infographic overview]

The drop in newsroom employment has fallen precipitiously, particularly since 2007. That’s not news to S&R’s regular readers, as that’s been a principal topic of discussion here over the years. S&R has covered the reasons behind the firings (yep, “layoffs” is too soft a word for canning a pro) and posited on the consequences of a depleted journalism workforce. (See here, here, here, and here.)

The root cause? Loss of revenue. As the graphic below shows, print ad revenue is down dramatically (at 45 percent of 2006 revenues). Digital ad revenue is increasing, but at a far slower rate than print revenue is falling.

And now, Pew research has detailed the decline of journalistic expertise and ability.

This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands.[emphasis added]

Pew placed particular emphasis on the one of 2012’s most significant stories — the most recent U.S. elections. Journalists underperformed, argues Pew:

So far, this trend has emerged most clearly in the political sphere, particularly with the biggest story of 2012—the presidential election. A Pew Research Center analysis revealed that campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans. That meant more direct relaying of assertions made by the campaigns and less reporting by journalists to interpret and contextualize them. This is summarized in our special video report on our Election Research, only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists in the 2012 race, while twice that many came from political partisans. That is a reversal from a dozen years earlier when half the statements originated with journalists and a third came from partisans. The campaigns also found more ways than ever to connect directly with citizens.

Sadly, reports Pew, 60 percent of Americans have heard little, or nothing, about the news industry’s financial reversals. But a third of Americans know when they’re not getting what they used to: Pew reports that 31 percent of Americans have fled a particular news outlet because it no longer provides readers or viewers what it once did.

That’s particularly disturbing. A third of Americans, if you have faith in Pew’s arithmetic, seek new sources of information, particularly news. Sure, digital media offer those Americans choices — but how will they assess the quality and credibility of those sources? If information seekers flee to news aggregation sites, where the hell (with a few exceptions) do they think those aggregated stories originated?

And the blogs? How will the credibility of millions of blogs, many, if not most, operated and populated by untrained volunteers (or wing nuts with large chips on their shoulders), be assessed?

Good sources of reliable, credible information exist. Most are newspapers or originated with newspapers’ materials. Some are operated by foundations or Kickstarted into existence.

Newspaper circulation has begun to recover (or at least not decline further). But 44 million papers sold daily is a far cry from nearly 60 million in the early ’90s at the dawn of the World Wide Web. Those 16 million readers aren’t returning. (Many are dead, of course; newspaper circulation skews more older than younger these days.)

Is there hope that newspapers will survive long enough to return to some form of prosperity (defined either as financially healthy or journalistically sound)?

Rick Edmonds, a longtime newspaper analyst at The Poynter Institute, suggests the news industry is not dead despite its myriad problems.

Newspapers’ fortunes, admittedly from a rock-bottom base, have been looking up lately — Warren Buffett and others have bought papers, digital pay plans are boosting circulation revenue, and new lines of business like digital marketing services are taking root.

After wisely noting the “continued erosion of resources” in the industry, Edmonds offers this counsel:

  • Be present on the mobile platforms where news consumers are headed. Try, try again on advertising or related revenue possibilities. Find money to support development of new apps and experimentation, but pace the spending since today’s hot technology yields quickly to tomorrow’s.
  • Get reader/users to pay a share. Digital subscriptions and print + digital bundles have been the industry’s biggest success story of the last several years. The report found that 33 percent of the country’s 1,380 dailies “have started or announced plans for some kind of paid content subscription or paywall plan.” Of course, a corollary to asking readers to pay is giving them a news report that’s worth it in an era where free options are abundant.
  • Continue to develop “other” efforts — digital marketing, events, contract printing and sponsored content. And measure it — first indicators are that newspapers may be covering as much as half their print ad losses with circulation revenue increases and income from these new ventures.
  • As the new business models become established, focus on the net income they generate. Halting, or at least slowing revenue declines, has been the first order of business. However, New York Times Co. executive James Follo raised the relevant caution late last year: the margin on new circulation revenue and other activities may not be nearly as good as on selling more print advertising. [emphasis in original]

That’s good advice. Readers — and those who need information — should hope it’s not too little, too late.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 1, 2013 at 1:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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