The State of the News Media 2009

by Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism has released its latest annual report on the State of the News Media. The complete report examines trends in newspapers, online media, local TV and cable news, magazines and citizen journalism. As the report's introduction states at the outset, "some of the numbers are chilling..."

Newspaper ad revenues have fallen 23% in the last two years. Some papers are in bankruptcy, and others have lost three-quarters of their value. By our calculations, nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone, and 2009 may be the worst year yet.

In local television, news staffs, already too small to adequately cover their communities, are being cut at unprecedented rates; revenues fell by 7% in an election year—something unheard of—and ratings are now falling or are flat across the schedule. In network news, even the rare programs increasing their ratings are seeing revenues fall.

Now the ethnic press is also troubled and in many ways is the most vulnerable because so many operations are small.

Only cable news really flourished in 2008, thanks to an Ahab-like focus on the election, although some of the ratings gains were erased after the election.

Perhaps least noticed yet most important, the audience migration to the Internet is now accelerating. The number of Americans who regularly go online for news, by one survey, jumped 19% in the last two years; in 2008 alone traffic to the top 50 news sites rose 27%. Yet it is now all but settled that advertising revenue—the model that financed journalism for the last century—will be inadequate to do so in this one. Growing by a third annually just two years ago, online ad revenue to news websites now appears to be flattening; in newspapers it is declining.

What does it all add up to?

Even before the recession, the fundamental question facing journalism was whether the news industry could win a race against the clock for survival: could it find new ways to underwrite the gathering of news online, while using the declining revenue of the old platforms to finance the transition?

In the last year, two important things happened that have effectively shortened the time left on that clock.

First, the hastening audience migration to the Web means the news industry has to reinvent itself sooner than it thought—even if most of those people are going to traditional news destinations. At least in the short run, a bigger online audience has worsened things for legacy news sites, not helped them.

Then came the collapsing economy. The numbers are only guesses, but executives estimate that the recession at least doubled the revenue losses in the news industry in 2008, perhaps more in network television. Even more important, it swamped most of the efforts at finding new sources of revenue. In trying to reinvent the business, 2008 may have been a lost year, and 2009 threatens to be the same.

Imagine someone about to begin physical therapy following a stroke, suddenly contracting a debilitating secondary illness.

Journalism, deluded by its profitability and fearful of technology, let others outside the industry steal chance after chance online. By 2008, the industry had finally begun to get serious. Now the global recession has made that harder.

This is the sixth edition of our annual report on the State of the News Media in the United States.

It is also the bleakest.

Much of what we have noted in the past holds true. The old media have held onto their audience even as consumers migrate online. In 2008, audience gains at sites offering legacy news were far larger than those for new media. The old norms of traditional journalism continue to have value. And when you look at the numbers closely, consumers are not just retreating to ideological places for news.

The problem facing American journalism is not fundamentally an audience problem or a credibility problem. It is a revenue problem—the decoupling, as we have described it before, of advertising from news.

That makes the situation better than it might have been. But audiences now consume news in new ways. They hunt and gather what they want when they want it, use search to comb among destinations and share what they find through a growing network of social media.

And the news industry does not know—and has done less than it could to learn—how to convert this more active online audience into revenue. In newspapers, roughly half of all classified advertising revenue has vanished, a good deal of that to operations that newspapers could have developed for themselves. Insiders now expect that classified revenue could be zero in five years—or sooner. When newspaper executives met this winter to talk about how to create a way for consumers to design their own ads, the discussion focused on doing so for print editions, not online. “They still don’t get it,” one irritated executive told us on background.

There are growing doubts within the business, indeed, about whether the generation in charge has the vision and the boldness to reinvent the industry. It is unclear, say some, who the innovative leaders are, and a good many well-known figures have left the business. Reinvention does not usually come from managers prudently charting course. It tends to come from risk takers trying the unreasonable, seeing what others cannot, imagining what is not there and creating it. We did not see much of it when times were better. Times are harder now.

In the last year, alternative news sites, have continued to grow, including those produced by journalists who have left legacy newsrooms, but their scale remains small. The new media in aggregate are far from compensating for the losses in coverage in traditional newsrooms, and despite enthusiasm and good work, few if any are profitable or even self-sustaining.

Those are just some of the questions and conclusions in this edition of our annual report on the state of American journalism. This year’s report, as always, offers a general overview of the state of journalism as well as detailed examinations of the state of eight separate sectors (newspapers, online, network television, cable television, local television, audio, magazines, and ethnic media). The report also includes our in-depth content analysis, based on a study of nearly 80,000 news stories and television and radio segments in A Year in the News, which this year includes an Interactive Topline where people can explore the data for themselves.

This year we also offer some Special Reports. There is one on citizen-based media, including a university study of 363 citizen websites in 46 markets. There is a first-ever survey of the members of the Online News Association, to be released March 30. There is an essay by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel on the Lessons of the Election. There is a backgrounder on the growing models of entrepreneurial journalism, new Web news organizations run by professional journalists outside the mainstream press. There is a review of changes in the last year in public attitudes.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey