American News Media Must Do More With Less

March 22, 2013 • Media Economics • by

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) 10th annual State of the News Media 2013 was released this month, and once again the mammoth report offers a large collection of interesting and important data. Among the most important findings was the, “continued erosion of news reporting resources,” which authors warned offered, “growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.” The analysis, which combines individual reports on eight key areas within the media industry, cautioned that while in some cases this direct access can be rewarding for newsmakers when distributing information without the filter of a large conglomerate, this also means that the increasingly understaffed American news industry is losing their ability to question or scrutinize information.

According to the report’s authors, this type of behavior was on display during the 2012 presidential elections, in which candidates and PAC’s used their enhanced digital media capabilities to communicate directly with voters, while traditional outlets acted “primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators.” Coupled with the diminished capacity of news outlets, American consumers are also beginning to notice the lack of substance and are responding by largely abandoning their favored news outlets due to the lack of content. For example, according to a special public opinion survey distributed as part of The State of the News Media report package, nearly one-third of respondents stated that they had left an outlet due to lack of coverage or content. In a trend that swept across most of the eight divisions covered by PEJ, outlets provided less reporting and investigative content and more interviews and commentary. Despite small gains in viewership and revenue, PEJ found that cable news outlets are among the mediums aggressively trimming content, meaning, “commentary and opinion are far more prevalent on the air (63 percent of airtime) than straight news reporting (37 percent).”

Magazines also cut content in parallel with large staff reductions, as overall employment at American news magazines fell 4 percent, more than twice the decline in 2011. Newsweek, which published its last print edition in December 2012, continues to scrape by thanks to a small staff tasked with publishing the remaining digital version. Time Magazine, whose print version is the only remaining, legacy-news-weekly, also cut 500 jobs in 2012 as part of a move by Time Inc. to trim $100 million from their annual budget. In a reversal from last year’s State of the News Media report, local news also showed declines in viewership and revenue, as stations continued to place more emphasis on local staples including traffic, weather, and sports – while cutting more extensive investigative and live midday coverage. However, among the gloomy statistics produced by the PEJ report, one point of optimism was the continued pattern of news audience growth via digital platforms, thanks to unremitting news access provided by mobile devices. According to the report, traffic to news sites increased, as did news access through mobile devices, including tablet computers and smartphones – data that points to news consumption as one of the most popular activities for those with wireless devices.

The PEJ analysis, which uses a multitude of tools to conduct primary and secondary data collection and analysis on the American news industry, studied eight individual media sections, including digital developments, newspapers, network, cable, and local broadcast news, magazines, audio, and also African American readership. Each section was then organized into seven primary areas of interest, which included content, audience, economics, ownership, newsroom investment, alternative news outlets, and digital trends. In addition to the individual sector analyses provided by PEJ, four special reports were also authored which relied on a collection of survey data and content analysis. Other key findings included drops in network and local television ratings, while newspapers, magazines, audio, cable and digital outlets showed negligible losses or small gains. Digital advertising also grew 17 percent, increasing its share of the total U.S. advertising market to 23 percent, up 3 percent from 2011.

Despite the promise of heightened consumption, the PEJ Report warns that the newspaper industry must find clever ways to stay competitive within the realm of digital advertising, as Facebook and Google continue to capture the majority of revenues. For example, mobile advertising also experienced impressive growth in 2012, totaling $2.6 billion in annual revenue, an 80 percent increase from last year, however again most of these revenues (72 percent) belong to the six leading tech firms. For the newspaper industry to compete, the report suggests, they must “carve out a small but competitive space in the digital ad market…One piece of that market that they can exploit is sponsorship advertising, and so-called native advertising.”

Unfortunately massive print advertising revenue losses continued to exceed any gains made in digital sectors. According to figures compiled by the Pew Research Center, “for every $16 in print ad revenue lost, only $1 in digital ad revenue was gained,” numbers which exceed the $10 to $1 ratio of 2011. Ultimately cutting staff and content quality will reduce audiences and continue to add pressure to news outlets struggling to increase advertising revenue, not to mention give rise to voices which are absent of objectivity. According to Amy Mitchell, the acting director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “there are more signs than ever that the reduced reporting power in the news industry is having an effect and may weaken both the industry’s capacity to produce in-depth journalism and its credibility with the public at the same time that others are gaining more voice.”

The full report can be found here.
Overview infographic can be found here.

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