The State of the News Media in 2008: More Unraveling Ahead
The Project for Excellence in Journalism yesterday released its latest, comprehensive survey/analysis of the news media. And like most news about big institutions these days, it's mostly frightening.
The big headline: Many things we thought we knew about how digital media is unraveling traditional news media outlets aren't really true. More individuals aren't really creating meaningful news content, the diversity of news platforms (online, podcast, web video, etc.) isn't really translating into a diversity of subjects covered. And while newspaper newsrooms in particular are trying hard to experiment and reinvent, the advertising and marketing department which are expected to generate the revenue which pays for their efforts are lagging behind.
The scariest part of their analysis: news and advertising are decoupling.
Many people don't realize it, but modern news consumers almost never directly pay what it costs to gather the information they absorb. TV, radio and newspapers make most of their money selling their audiences to advertisers, allowing them to offer the news product which creates the audience for free or almost free to the public.
Digital technology is pulling that model apart, like an insistent child tugging on a woven sweater's loose thread. Cynical critic that I am, I think the hidden truth here is that digital media removes a lot of doubt about who is consuming what; on a newspaper website, for example, you can see how many users are reading each story and whether they are local consumers. So advertisers have much more information to lower and target their advertising dollars, which limits revenues for publishers.
Other high points from the PEJ study:
* News is less a finished product and more a continuing service. This is something I've only noticed in part of our work -- namely, the breaking news stuff we do on the Web. But our most popular stuff tells people something they didn't know, or helps them do something they couldn't before.
* Citizen journalism and blog sites are nearly as resistant as old school media in allowing public posting. The hidden truth here is that creating media content is tougher than it looks, especially in news. Most sites are recreating the "gatekeeper" model, where a relatively small circle of contributors create content.
* While newsrooms are working hard to innovate, advertising and marketing departments are having trouble changing their game. This is something I've seen locally; as the established adversing model unravels, business side departments are having a tough time finding new methods to earn the same dollars.
* Story subjects have narrowed in American news media. This is something else I've seen up close. We have more platforms than even here at the Times, but we're chasing a harder-to-reach audience. So our efforts are focused on subjects and approaches which we know our audience finds compelling. Nationally, the PEJ found that more 25 percent of news coverage in 2007 focused on two stories: Iraq and the presidential election.