A sad state of affairs for America’s news media

Two journalists—Gwen Flanders, a breaking news editor at USA Today, and Arin Greenwood, associate editor for HuffPost DC—spoke at an Independent Public Relations Alliance luncheon I attended earlier this month. It was a great session, with helpful tips on how to pitch reporters on story ideas, but something Flanders said stuck with me long after I left the meeting. According to her, twice as many people are reading USA Today online than they are in print.

For someone who cut his teeth in community newspapers, this came as a surprise—although not a shock, since I personally read most newspapers online now, too.

Where people get newsLast fall, the Pew Research Center released its latest biennial study of news consumption habits, and it showed for the first time that half of Americans get their news digitally. Only 23 percent said they had read a newspaper the day before, half the number who did so in 2000 when nearly 50 percent of Americans said they read a newspaper the day before.

In fact, newspaper readership in any format is at its lowest ever (29 percent), ranking below radio (33 percent), online/mobile (39 percent), any form of digital (50 percent) and television (55 percent).

While it would appear that TV has an edge, Pew points out that the audience for television news is graying and that just a third of young people watch TV news. Most people under 25 (60 percent) get their news from digital sources. Not only that, Pew found that 18-29-year-olds are spending slightly more time on social networks such as Facebook than on all news sources combined.

There’s no doubt that print publications are struggling. Many are attempting to augment circulation revenue through “paywalls,” which require online readers to subscribe before seeing all of their content. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have been the most notable erectors of paywalls, but The Washington Post recently announced that it will be building one this summer. And Flanders said that USA Today is considering it, too.

Indeed, if you look at the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s latest figures (from last fall), The Wall Street Journal has the highest circulation of any daily newspaper with 2,293,798. But a growing chunk of that circulation (794,594) comes from digital editions. Over half of The New York Times’ weekday circulation of 1,613,865 comes from digital editions (896,352). USA Today is ranked second in overall circulation (1,713,833); but for print only, it is No. 1 since it has just 86,307 digital editions.

Newspapers may be the most noticeable in their struggle to survive, but all news media are hurting. In March, Pew released its annual “State of the News Media” report, noting a “continued erosion of news reporting resources.”

“Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978,” Pew said.

In local TV, Pew reported, sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40 percent of the content produced on the newscasts studied while story lengths have shrunk. “On CNN, the cable channel that has branded itself around deep reporting, produced story packages were cut nearly in half from 2007 to 2012,” Pew said. On other cable channels, coverage of live events fell 30 percent from 2007 to 2012.

And the list goes on…Time magazine, the only major print news weekly left, cut its staff by five percent earlier this year. Forbes magazine now uses a technology company called Narrative Science to produce some of its content by algorithm, with no human reporting necessary.

“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,” Pew concludes.

Here are the six major trends Pew reported, which I think any student of the media would be wise to study:

  1. The effects of a decade of newsroom cutbacks are real—and the public is taking notice. 
  2. The news industry continues to lose out on the bulk of new digital advertising. 
  3. The long-dormant sponsorship ad category is seeing sharp growth.
  4. The growth of paid digital content experiments may have a significant impact on both news revenue and content. (Pew says 450 of the nation’s 1,380 dailies have started or announced plans for some kind of paid content subscription or paywall plan.)
  5. While the first and hardest-hit industry, newspapers, remains in the spotlight, local TV finds itself newly vulnerable.
  6. Hearing about things in the news from friends and family, whether via social media or actual word of mouth, leads to deeper news consumption.
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5 Responses to A sad state of affairs for America’s news media

  1. Pingback: … Get it First , but , Get it Right !! … « Lake Erie Conservative

  2. Alan Hahn says:

    Besides death and taxes, change is the other certainty in life. It just happens so fast now.

  3. This makes me so sad. But I see it every day. My office is completely staffed with folks in their 20s and 30s…and only one gets a newspaper – and just on Sunday. I cannot imagine what they think of my daily Post and Sunday Times, both of which I refer to frequently in conversation.

    • Jay Morris says:

      Melissa, good to hear from you. I have to confess, I’ve gone digital myself. The problem with that, though, is that I find I miss a lot because I’m mostly skimming headlines and reading the top news. So digital does have its drawbacks. – Jay

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