Hardly anything changes as quickly as the state of the news media. Pew Research Center publishes research on the topic each year, and 2016’s report has a few surprises to reveal. After the Great Recession, news publishers have continually scrambled to find the true and right profitable course for the evolution that’s already underway. It’s not here yet, but there are some clues.
With all of the ups and downs, newspapers do still survive. We’re in a reorganization phase that permeates the whole industry, says Pew. And while it might feel like treading water, each minute afloat is a minute closer to the next shore.
Print Circulation Numbers are Deceiving
Everywhere you turn, someone is talking about the death of print. That’s been the case for years now. And we’re at a point where it’s almost a catchphrase. But as Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Print will almost certainly continue to decline just as Twain eventually did walk into the light, as they say. It might rally and become something different from what it was before. But each year, the numbers trickle lower and lower. Thing is, it’s still much stronger than digital.
Digital isn’t yet the game changer that it might become. Ad revenue isn’t there yet, and neither is circulation. According to Pew Research, digital “accounts for only 22 percent of total circulation.” And while there’s plenty of revenue to be made through digital, news hasn’t figured it out.
One of the main hurdles appears to be the fact that digital consumers have no problem paying for some things. But they don’t want to pay for news, and they are offended by digital ads at news outlets. Digital isn’t a game changer, at least not yet.
Print Still Has an Important Audience
Print newspapers are charming and some young people love them. But the print’s relevance isn’t just for nostalgia like so many vinyl records. It’s still got an important audience who rely on it, whether on weekdays or just weekends.
The print industry is holding tight to this large, strong and important core audience because the longer it sticks around, the more likely a publication will survive through its eventual transition to digital.
One problem might be the timeliness of print as opposed to a live media outlet such as TV, social media or even a new publication’s website. People are more accustomed to instant gratification, and print can’t deliver it. In an early 2016 Pew Research Center study, more people reported getting presidential election news almost anywhere but print.
Perhaps one angle that can preserve the relevance of print is a shift toward a more specialized publication. So readers don’t rely on print for up-to-the-minute national and world news. But they do get a lot of their local news in print, and it’s also a perfect medium for beautiful, long form specialty reporting.
Newsrooms are Smaller but They’re Not Dead
Mark Twain’s sentiment is also echoed in newsrooms. They are shrinking, to be sure. But they’re far from dead.
If you listened to the doomsayers, you might be inclined to think that the newsroom of 2016 is nothing but a hollow space where the echoes of reporters past plunk away at typewriter keys and hustle over to the ticker tape machine. But Pew says that the industry now supports about 33,000 full-time newsroom employees. That’s not exactly a funeral.
There is a decline, and it’s a sharp one. Since 2014, newsroom employment has dropped by about 10 percent. That equals the overall loss of 20,000 newsroom jobs that were active 20 years ago.
Mergers, acquisitions, and buyouts are happening all around these days. And that often leads to newsroom cuts. Former major independent players, E.W. Scripps, Journal Communications and Gannett, are now part of the same whole.
But not every takeover meets with success. Tribune Publishing Co., now oddly known simply as “tronc,” fought tooth and nail to ward off Gannett’s unwelcome buyout advances. And they appear to have won that battle, at least for now.
Age Appears to Matter a Lot
For the under-30 crowd, social media is the primary source for news. The integration of live streaming video has helped, as has its continually scrolling and updating nature. There are few things that update faster than Twitter or Facebook, not even a news publication’s website.
People over 30 tend to watch more TV for news, but even they rely on social media. A full 62 percent, says Pew Research, in all age groups go to a social media outlet for timely news. The adjustment is mirroring what happened in the early stages of print to digital.
That said, cable and network television both enjoyed some growth in revenue throughout 2015. “Network TV grew ad revenues by 6 percent in the evening and 14 percent in the morning,” says Pew. “Cable increased both ad revenue and subscriber revenue for a total growth of 10 percent and saw profit gains as well.
But if the shift means what it did for print, those strong numbers probably won’t last. Viewers are more often cutting ties with cable in favor of piecemeal video offering online of everything from news to television shows to feature films.
The News Model Has an Unlikely Partner
Print and digital have been portrayed as bitter rivals, with print as the underdog that’s doomed to fall in defeat one day. But behind the scenes, there’s yet another evolution taking place.
Where the news was once in a position of controlling every aspect, now it’s sharing some of those duties and privileges with digital. Reporting, customer experience, distribution and every other aspect of the news was once fully in the hands of the news publication because it was its own publisher. But now with digital, someone else has a stake in the game.
Digital is now a news partner, and that means sharing privileges with tech companies that might have radically different goals and desires from that of the news publication. So all of the exposure that digital provides comes at a price, and that price might be compromising standards.
One glaring example is the Facebook scandal where the social media giant’s former employees admitted to faking trending news. Referred to inside the company as “news curators,” Gizmodo says these employees admitted to routinely suppressing conservative news stories that Facebook didn’t want to expose. At the same time, they inserted so-called trending stories that weren’t trending at all, at least not until they artificially influenced the trends. Publishers have always chosen which stories to publish, but now there’s someone else involved and their interests might be wildly different from that of the publication.
Newspapers aren’t dead and neither is the newsroom, but they’re struggling to find an identity that fits. The future must include digital. The problem remains how to make that partnership profitable since readers are on social media first. Without relinquishing some control to that distribution channel, the solution will likely stay just out of reach.